Published: March 10, 2010
After four months locked in a New Jersey immigration jail facing deportation, Qing Hong Wu, 29, was told by guards to pack his things on Tuesday evening. Fearing that he was being abruptly transferred to a detention center in Texas or Louisiana, like many detainees with families in New York City, Mr. Wu asked other inmates to try to alert his fiancée.
From left, Mr. Wu’s fiancée, mother and sister outside the Monmouth County jail in Freehold, N.J., where they missed his release from detention early Wednesday by just a few minutes.
Even as guards at the front desk told him to walk out of the Monmouth County Correctional Institute in Freehold, N.J., no one at the jail had told him why.
With no way for his lawyers or family to call him, he was unaware of the news that they and a widening circle of supporters around the world had been celebrating since Saturday: Gov. David A. Paterson had pardoned Mr. Wu, an information technology executive whose rise from poverty and street crime in Chinatown had almost ended in deportation to China, a country he left at 5, and where he knew no one.
“I can’t thank him enough,” said Mr. Wu, 29, Wednesday morning. “I’m very, very lucky.”
After his release on Tuesday, and a two-and-a-half-hour nighttime journey home on foot and by bus, Mr. Wu still had no clue of the governor’s pardon until he reached his Spring Street apartment building at 9:30 p.m., and a cousin, who also lives there, congratulated him.
Mr. Wu’s relatives and fiancée, Anna Ng, had driven to the jail to pick him up, but despite their repeated calls to jail officials, no one informed Mr. Wu they were on their way, so they missed him by a few minutes. They were still driving around New Jersey, trying to find him in the dark, when he called Ms. Ng from his cousin’s apartment.
The case of Mr. Wu, who immigrated to the United States legally as a child, had drawn support from many, including the judge who sentenced him to a reformatory in 1996 for a series of muggings committed at 15, and who promised to stand by him if he redeemed himself. An article in The New York Times last month described how the judge, Michael A. Corriero, now retired, wrote to Governor Paterson appealing for the pardon.
The governor’s action erased the grounds for mandatory detention and deportation, and could open the door to citizenship for Mr. Wu.
After three years in the reformatory, where he earned a high school equivalency diploma, Mr. Wu went on to college and became a vice president at Centerline Capital Group, a real estate financial and management company. His application for citizenship, in which he disclosed his criminal record, brought him to the attention of immigration authorities, who sent him to detention.
Because of publicity about the pardon, Elizabeth R. OuYang, president of OCA-NY, an Asian-American civil rights organization that championed Mr. Wu, said she had expected immigration and jail officials to handle Mr. Wu’s release better than most. Instead, advocates said, it was typical, underscoring the isolation and vulnerability of immigration detainees in a disjointed system with vast power to transfer people out of reach of lawyers and family members.
Without his identification, money or cellphone, Mr. Wu said, he was released from the jail with two bus tickets and the balance of his commissary account — a check for $103 that he had no way to cash. Local criminal inmates released at the same time led him to an express bus stop a half-mile away. He took the bus to the Port Authority Bus Terminal and walked to Spring Street, which took him about an hour.
“It was a great hour,” he said. “Even though I was tired, I was so happy. I thought immigration made a mistake, so I figured I’d enjoy it before they come and get me.”
“It was great to see the city again,” he added, describing a walk through Herald Square and down to Union Square. He had no key for his apartment, but buzzed his cousin, who let him in. By 11 p.m. Tuesday, his mother, fiancée, brother-in-law and Ms. OuYang had made it back from New Jersey for a reunion.
“I couldn’t sleep the whole night,” Mr. Wu said. “Many things were racing through my head.”
Among them, he said, were thoughts of the detainees left behind in the Freehold jail, including “people with mental health problems, two pre-operative transsexuals, elderly folks that can barely walk.”
“It’s just wrong,” he said. “It’s sad.”
But he said he also had grateful thoughts about the encouraging letters he had received “from random strangers” across the country who had read about his case.
On Wednesday, Mr. Wu’s immigration lawyer sent a note to Immigration and Customs Enforcement, thanking the agency for its assistance in his release. And at a noon news conference at the headquarters of Big Brothers Big Sisters of New York City, joy and gratitude prevailed. For the first time since his 1996 sentencing, Mr. Wu found himself face to face with the judge who had fulfilled his promise to stand by him.
“I simply want to say to Qing, ‘Welcome home,’ ” Judge Corriero said. “This has always been your home — New York City has been your home. We’re so proud of what you’ve accomplished and the way you have endured to come back.”
The judge, who grew up in the same Chinatown neighborhood 40 years before Mr. Wu, recalled how the sight of Mr. Wu’s mother, Chang Juan Wu, at the sentencing reinforced his decision not only to hold the teenager responsible for his crimes, but also to give him a chance at redemption. Like his own mother, she was a seamstress in a garment factory, struggling to raise her son in a new land.
“This is an American story,” Judge Corriero said. “And Qing is a model of what America can do.”