In the Summer of 2019, Rebecca Cooney, a volunteer with New York Justice for Our Neighbors, spoke at length with their client Mo Lin, and recorded some of his remarkable life in the interview below.
Mo Lin died on April 17, 2020, from COVID-19. He was 53 years old.
What led you to leave China?
Thirty-some years ago in Tiananmen Square in Beijing, students rallied the Chinese Communist Party for democratic reform. Likewise, similar reform demonstrations were also being rallied in various cities in China such as Xi’an, Chengdu, Guangdong, and Fujian, to name a few. I participated in the rally in Fuzhou City in my province Fujian. At first, the Chinese Armed Police Force and Liberation Army moved in on Tiananmen Square with massive arrests and many “trials” by the Party-influenced People’s Court. It was only a matter of time before the Police and Army were to come to Fujian.
After the rally, I went back home, back to farming my family’s land. Some days later I got a message. The Police were looking for anyone in Fujian who had taken part in the rallies supporting the Tiananmen Square movement. My name was on their list. If I stayed, I knew I’d be arrested and unfairly tried. Maybe executed. Everyone told me to leave at once, before the public safety police arrived at our village. There were others on the list in my village, and so, with the help of a network of sympathizers, we all made our way to the Thai border.
It cost a lot, debts I had to pay off the debts before I could leave for the United States. I found work as a laborer, and finally I saved enough for the debts plus the cost of a passport with a US visa. The members of the network had arranged everything including a flight to the US. Once I landed, I was to go to the toilet and destroy the passport and ticket. And then, when I reached Immigration, to say “P.A.” (for political asylum).
You seem like an clear candidate for asylum.
The network thought so. But instead, I was detained by the Los Angeles immigration officers and taken to a place like a jail where I spent 14 months. I got a job in the meal hall serving food. They paid me very little, but it was better than nothing. It helped me to make contact with someone outside, and he posted my bail, for $2500. And finally I was released.
I left Los Angeles for New York because it’s a city of immigrants, and with a Fujianese community, with people even from my village. They were the ones who helped me rent a bed (with many others in the same apartment) in Chinatown. As an asylum applicant it was no problem to find work. I got a job at a fish market in Chinatown. I worked six days a week for about 12 hours a day. It covered the rent on my bed and the installments on my debts. I had even enough to send back to my wife in Fujian. And all the while, I waited for my political asylum hearing, hoping for the best.
So what happened?
Things did not go as I’d hoped. At the hearing, the judge denied my petition. He gave me voluntary departure back to China until a certain date, after which Immigration would issue a deportation hearing. I lost all hope. I couldn’t believe it.
I decided to do what everyone did – move around and don’t get caught. But I still hoped for a miracle. After all, in 1960 there was an amnesty, and in the mid-1980s immigrants were legalized.
How bad did it get?
Getting a job got hard. I had no papers. No ID, no bank, no money, nothing. I could only work for cash. So, I found work in a kitchen and worked as hard as I could to pay for my bed, my debts, and my wife.
I did this for eight years and then my body gave up. First I had rashes on my arms. Then I got a heart attack. It kept going downhill. Diabetes. High blood pressure. Thyroid problems. I was falling apart in and out of hospitals and finally in rehabilitation — three years on Roosevelt Island. But even after they discharged me, I too weak to work. And I had no place to live. No money. They placed me in a homeless shelter.
Shelters are not good places. And they move you from shelter to shelter. They did this to me for three years until a man in one of the shelters suddenly attacked me. He broke my teeth, my face and my eye.
I came out of the hospital very scared. But they still put me in another shelter. I was so scared. And I still had no papers. It was 2012.
What made you stop in for the clinic at the Chinese Mission?
I saw an ad in a Chinese paper for a free lawyer. What did I have to lose? I went in. I knew my case was hopeless but I told my story to TJ Mills, the lawyer they’d assigned me.
TJ saw a way immediately. You see, he told me, I qualified for a U-Visa because I was a victim of an assault. He filed my application. And a year later I got my visa. I was amazed. Many people wait seven years or more, but I got mine in a year.
How has that changed things?
TJ told me that with that visa, I could send for my wife. He helped me.
She arrived on July 2, 2019, two days before American Independence Day.
I am still in a shelter and my wife is staying with a friend. Now, the most important thing is to find a place where we can be together because it’s been 28 years away from each other. There is so much time we have lost.
Any other thoughts?
TJ was quick. He was efficient. He saw immediately what would work. Maybe I deserve asylum, but it wasn’t working. The U-Visa did.
In immigration, every little delay — a day, a week or a month — could mean a month more of waiting on your application, or a year more, of or many years more before they look at your application. I’ve seen it. In immigration, time counts.
TJ saw the way forward for me, and for my wife. I thank him every day, because without him, without JFON, none of this would be possible.