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Smuggling of Chinese workers into the United States

The handing down of a 35 year sentence on 3/16 in New York City brought a kind of closure to one of the most lurid worker smuggler schemes in recent American history: Chinese coming into the U.S. by boat, plane, or via Mexico, under the control of professional smugglers, or “snakeheads,” and Cheng Chui Ping – “Sister Ping” -- in particular.

As reported by the New York Times, “The Chinatown businesswoman who calls herself Sister Ping was sentenced yesterday to 35 years in prison for running one of New York City's most lucrative immigrant smuggling rings and for financing the infamous voyage of the Golden Venture, the rusting freighter that ran aground off Queens in June 1993 with nearly 300 starving immigrants in its fetid hold. Ten of the immigrants died after they leaped into chilly waves off the Rockaways in a final effort to reach American soil.”

According to an article, “A hard road ahead: how the snakeheads rule”,

Driving the flow of illegal Chinese immigrants into the U.S. is the hope of fabulous economic gain. An undocumented Chinese can earn about $1,500 a month working at a restaurant in America. An immigrant who sends half that money home to China can catapult his or her family into the upper class in a country where the average income, according to several international reports, is between $250 and $300 a year. An INS intelligence report estimates that in 1999, between 12,000 and 24,000 illegal Chinese entered the United States, although academics and other experts say the number is much higher. Of these undocumented immigrants, more than 80 percent come from the Fujian province in southeastern China.
Alien smuggling from China began in the 1970s, according to the FBI’s Rose. But it wasn’t until the 1990s that masses of Fujianese began entering the country illegally. Throughout the 1980s, the Cantonese population in New York City’s Chinese communities ballooned, expanding from New York City’s Chinatown into Brooklyn and Queens. In the late 1980s to the mid-1990s, the U.S. government began to relax its immigration policies. One policy implemented during this time came as a result of the Chinese government’s 1989 crackdown on student protesters in Tiananmen Square; President George Bush’s administration allowed all Chinese students in the United States at the time to become legal permanent residents. Encouraged, the Chinese began coming to the United States in greater numbers, increasing the influx of Chinese immigration from a trickle to a flow.

Returning to the New York Times article, “Ms. Cheng, 57, was convicted on June 23 after a monthlong trial in Federal District Court in Manhattan on three counts of immigrant smuggling, money-laundering and trafficking in kidnapping proceeds….. The tough sentence marked the end of a 12-year effort to catch and prosecute Ms. Cheng….. Martin D. Ficke, the special agent in charge of Immigration and Customs Enforcement for New York, said Ms. Cheng's was the biggest immigrant smuggling operation ever investigated in New York. He said the operation had been shut down.

“An assistant United States attorney, Leslie C. Brown, said at the beginning of the hearing that ….in a two-decade smuggling career, the prosecutor said, Ms. Cheng charged exorbitant rates for a sea trip in which passengers were given little food and sometimes only two sips of water a day. Once they arrived in the United States she hired gang members to ensure that they paid their debts to her, Ms. Brown said.”

Ko-lin Chin wrote "The Social Organization of Chinese Human Smuggling"
Excerpts from "Global Human Smuggling: Comparative Perspectives" (published by John Hopkins in 2001)

Ko-lin Chin is an associate professor in the School of Criminal Justice, Rutgers University, Newark. He is the author of "Smuggled Chinese: Clandestine Immigration to the United States" (1999), "Chinatown Gangs" (1996), "Chinese Subculture and Criminality" (1990), and coeditor of "Handbook of Organized Crime in the United States" (1994).

The following comes from chapter 8 of his 2001 book:

A year after the United States had established diplomatic relations with the People's Republic, China liberalized its immigration regulations in order to qualify for most-favored-nation status with the United States Since 1979, tens of thousands of Chinese have legally immigrated to the United States and other countries. U.S. immigration quotas allow only a limited number of Chinese whose family members are U.S. citizens or who are highly educated to immigrate to or visit America. Beginning in the late 1980s, some of those who did not have legitimate channels to enable them to immigrate, especially the Fujianese, began turning to human smugglers for help.

Smuggled Chinese arrive in the United States by land, sea, or air routes. Some travel to Mexico or Canada and then cross U.S. borders illegally. Others fly into major American cities via any number of transit points and make their way to their final destination. Entering the United States by sea was an especially popular method between August 1991 and July 1993. During that time, thirty-two ships carrying as many as fifty-three hundred Chinese were found in waters near Japan, Taiwan, Indonesia, Australia, Singapore, Haiti, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, and the United States, though in the aftermath of the Golden Venture incident, the use of the sea route diminished significantly.

According to a senior immigration official who was interviewed in the early 1990s, "at any given time, thirty thousand Chinese are stashed away in safe houses around the world, waiting for entry.”.

Research Methods

This study employs multiple research strategies, including a survey of three hundred smuggled Chinese in New York City, interviews with key informants who are familiar with the lifestyle and social problems of illegal Chinese immigrants, a field study in the Chinese immigrant community of New York City, two research trips to sending communities in China, and a systematic collection of media reports.

According to my subjects, a smuggling organization includes many roles:

1. Big snakeheads, or arrangers/investors, often Chinese living outside China, generally invest money in a smuggling operation and oversee the entire operation but usually are not known by those being smuggled.

2. Little snakeheads, or recruiters, usually live in China and work as middlemen between big snakeheads and customers; they are mainly responsible for finding and screening customers and collecting down payments.

3. Transporters in China help immigrants traveling by land or sea make their way to the border or smuggling ship. Transporters based in the United States are responsible for taking smuggled immigrants from airports or seaports to safe houses.

4. Corrupt Chinese government officials accept bribes in return for Chinese passports. Law enforcement authorities in many transit countries are also paid to aid the illegal Chinese immigrants entering and exiting their countries.

5. Guides move illegal immigrants from one transit point to another and aid immigrants entering the United States by land or air. Crew members are employed by snakeheads to charter or work on smuggling ships.

6. Enforcers, themselves mostly illegal immigrants, are hired by big snakeheads to work on the smuggling ships. They are responsible for maintaining order and for distributing food and drinking water.

7. Support personnel are local people at the transit points who provide food and lodging to illegal immigrants.

8. U.S.-based debt collectors are responsible for locking up illegal immigrants in safe houses until their debt is paid and for collecting smuggling fees. There are also China-based debt collectors.

According to data collected in New York City and the Fuzhou area, a close working relationship links the leaders and others in the smuggling network, especially the snakeheads in the United States and China. More often than not, all those in the smuggling ring belong to a family or an extended family or are good friends.

When I visited Fuzhou, I interviewed a number of people who belonged to a ring that smuggled Chinese by air. A woman in charge of a government trade unit in Fuzhou City recruited customers and procured travel documents. She interacted only with government officials who helped her obtain travel documents; her assistant dealt with customers directly, recruiting, collecting down payments, signing contracts, and so forth. She recruited a partner, a childhood friend and member of the Public Security Bureau, who was responsible for securing travel documents for the ring's clients. A female relative in Singapore acted as a transit point snakehead. She traveled to countries such as Thailand, Indonesia, and Malaysia to set up transit points in those countries.

The primary leader and investor in the ring, based in New York, was responsible for subcontracting with members of a Queens-based gang to keep immigrants in safe houses and collect their fees after arrival in the United States. If the fee was to be paid in China, the female snakehead's assistant in China would collect it. It was not clear to me how profits were distributed among members of the smuggling ring or how money was actually transferred from one place to another.

There is no shortage of evidence that government officials, both within China and at various transit points, help to facilitate the clandestine movement of people abroad.

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