Decades after Golden Venture, York County is an immigration detention hub

Logan Hullinger
York Dispatch
York County Prison in Springettsbury Township, Thursday, June 29, 2017. Dawn J. Sagert photo

In 1993, 154 Chinese immigrants landed in York County Prison, a seminal moment that transformed it into a hub for detaining undocumented immigrants. 

Now, the county is renegotiating a contract with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), continuing the federal-local relationship that prompted those immigrants aboard the ship Golden Venture be housed there in the first place.

"Immigration detention is still horrendous, but it's not as horrendous as it was because the Golden Venture was the catalyst for standards that are in place around the country," said Joan Maruskin, who coordinated an interfaith group that advocated for justice for the Chinese detainees in the 1990s.

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Amid the raucous national debate, a facility in York County might not seem like a big player. But the numbers say otherwise.

Among the more than 200 ICE-authorized detention facilities in the country, the prison's 800-person capacity ranks 22nd. Its average daily population of 695 detainees ranks 17th, according to 2018 statistics. 

York County Prison's facility is among the top three largest facilities on the East Coast by both of those measures.

Mary Studzinski, executive director of the nonprofit immigration law firm Pennsylvania Immigration Resource Center (PIRC), praised how the prison treats its detainees.

But the detention system used by the county prison and others across the country is far from the best option for handling immigration, she said.

"We spend billions of dollars every year to detain immigrants in civil detention, with the sole purpose of making sure they show up at the hearing," she said. "If they've committed a crime, they've already served their time."

Most of those housed in the county prison also are locals, as it's easy for ICE agents based at or near the prison to round up undocumented immigrants in the area, Studzinski said.

She  pointed to case management systems and other methods that would be less expensive ways to make sure immigrants attend hearings.

But federal dollars are a powerful motivator for cash-strapped local governments, said York County Court of Common Pleas Judge Craig Trebilcock, who in the 1990s represented some of the immigrants pro bono.

"I've never met a politician who doesn't like free federal money," he said.

In 2018 alone, York County received $27.2 million to cover the costs of prisoner maintenance, transportation and more, according to the most recent 2016 county-ICE contract obtained through a Right-to-Know Law Request.

County spokesman Mark Walters declined to comment when asked about specifics of the county's contractual bond with ICE.

Despite the county's silence, some who helped the Chinese immigrants who arrived in York after being smuggled into the U.S. addressed the matter at a Thursday, April 25, panel discussion at York College commemorating the event.

The federal government's decision to put them in the prison was largely because of the county's first contract with ICE that was signed in 1992, the year before the immigrants arrived, Trebilcock said.

"(Government officials) said 'We have a preexisting contract with the York County Prison, and they built this prison for future expansion, and it's pretty much empty. Why don't we send them there, lock them up and they will become an example?'" he said.

For nearly four years, that example was made while lawyers battled over the detainees' future. 

As is seen today, tensions over immigration and border security were rampant during former President BIll Clinton's tenure, and the federal government pressured local judges to deport the detainees.

Many did face that fate, although in 1997, Clinton permitted the release of the 52 remaining Golden Venture detainees. They were still in the country illegally and didn't have any legal rights.

— Logan Hullinger can be reached at or via Twitter at @LoganHullYD.