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Deserving of an American Life

A young Chinese man — an "A" student at a high school in Ohio — faces deportation because he entered the United States illegally. The government says he should be sent back because he is not a political refugee. But he faces trouble with a Chinese gang which arranged for his transport.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

Seventeen-year-old Young Zheng is his family's second child, born in the Fujian Province of China where second children are not allowed and often cast aside. When Zheng was 14, his father paid about $5,000 to a criminal gang called Snakeheads to smuggle his son into the United States. The plan was to have Zheng quickly find work in menial off-the-book jobs and send back money, the first $60,000 to pay off the smugglers. The Snakeheads gave Young Zheng a counterfeit passport. US immigration officials at Newark Airport saw a young boy who spoke no English traveling alone and easily spotted fraud and was sent to a juvenile detention facility in Philadelphia, then transferred to another in Chicago. Now juvenile detention centers can be lonely, ugly places, but the staff liked Young Zheng. They helped him learn English. He read and studied while lawyers applied for asylum saying it would be dangerous for him to be returned to China for Snakeheads have been known to murder people who do not pay the money.

After about a year, Zheng was able to make contact with an uncle in Akron, Ohio. Officials released him to live there on the promise that he would not work. He was 15. Over the past two years, this young man who had been mocked and cuffed around for much of his life began to bloom with friends and learning. He went to Akron Central-Hower High School where he has a 4.0 grade average and became well-known and popular. He talked about becoming a biologist or opening his own company. But Snakeheads began to call his uncle demanding money and threatening Young Zheng if they were not paid.

Zheng reportedly understood he had to report to the local homeland security office every three months. But when Zheng presented himself in April, he was arrested for not reporting every month as the law mandates. Officials said he had to go back to China. On April 6th, Young Zheng broke free on the tarmac of O'Hare International Airport but only to smash his head against a security wall. He told officials, `I would rather die in the United States than be murdered by the Snakeheads back home.' He was transferred to a juvenile detention facility in Houston.

Federal attorneys say Zheng does not meet the standard for asylum because his life is not threatened by the Chinese government but a criminal enterprise for which he once agreed to work. Howard Rose, an assistant US attorney, said in a court filing, `This case begins with a person who attempted to enter the United States by fraud.' That may be the way that law enforcement officials, who are charged with trying to prevent criminals from entering the country, need to see his case, but it's hard in human terms not to see Young Zheng as a young boy who is the victim of a crime, not its perpetrator.

Yesterday, the 3rd US Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia ruled that Young Zheng can stay in the United States until his legal status is determined by a court. Is there anyone who deserves America more and who would honor it more than Young Zheng?

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SIMON: And the time is now 18 minutes past the hour.

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Simon SaysSimon Says NPR's Scott Simon Shares His Take On Events Large And Small
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