• 2Jun
  • Issues & Ideas - The Snakeheads' Secret Weapons
  • 6/2/2006
  • In the early 1990s, human smugglers known as "snakeheads" were charging about $30,000 to sneak a Chinese person into the U.S. by land, air, or sea. Since then, smuggling fees have risen to an average of $60,000 to $70,000 and can run as high as $90,000.

    One reason that Chinese peasants and city dwellers are willing to pay snakeheads that much money to get into the United States illegally is that it's very unlikely they'll ever be deported if they're caught. So illegal immigrants expect to work hard in America, pay off their debt over several years, and eventually make a lot more money than they could have made at home.

    An examination of why illegal Chinese immigrants face little risk of being returned home shows why it will be difficult for the Bush administration and Congress to stem the flow of non-Hispanic illegal aliens into the country. Current asylum rules, a large number of employers willing to hire illegal immigrants from China, and a 2001 Supreme Court ruling are among the reasons that thousands of illegal Chinese immigrants continue to flow into the United States and remain here -- including 72,000 who were caught but released back into the U.S. population, and at least 39,000 who have actually been ordered deported but are still here. A major factor is an uncooperative Chinese government, which does little to help Washington return Chinese citizens to their home country. The Chinese benefit from what has evolved into "a mini-amnesty program for tens of thousands of illegal aliens that are subject to removal from the U.S.," auditors from the Homeland Security Department inspector general's office said in a recent report.

    Chinese immigration to the United States has had a unique history. Chinese workers started arriving in California in the mid-19th century, with more than 250,000 recorded immigrants coming to the United States by 1890; they famously participated in the California Gold Rush, helped build the transcontinental railroads, and established San Francisco's Chinatown as well as many other Chinatowns in the West. But in 1882, anti-Chinese sentiment led Congress to approve the Chinese Exclusion Act, which sought to cut off most immigration from China. Congress approved further restrictions in 1884, 1886, and 1888. In 1906, the San Francisco earthquake and fire destroyed Chinatown, including most of the records regarding citizenship. Illegal immigrants claimed citizenship by pretending to be children of permanent Chinese residents of San Francisco.

    U.S. immigration officials then set up an immigration station on Angel Island in San Francisco Bay to hold and interrogate Chinese more thoroughly than immigrants from other countries. Many Chinese were held there for long periods; some never reached the mainland, living within sight of relatives in San Francisco before being returned to China. The Exclusion Act wasn't repealed until 1943 -- when Congress also finally made Chinese eligible for citizenship. But a 1952 law again restricted Chinese immigration, this time to 100 people a year, until 1965, when Congress approved comprehensive immigration reform that liberalized the rules for immigrants of most nations, including China. Only 153,000 Chinese were admitted to the country between 1890 and 1970. By comparison, 4.8 million Italians and 1.6 million Mexicans were admitted during that period.

    Communist China liberalized its overseas travel rules in the 1970s, which, coupled with fewer U.S. restrictions, allowed more than 1 million Chinese to legally move to America between 1971 and 2004. But the average number of Chinese allowed in legally each year is fewer than 50,000, well below the number of Chinese who want to come to the United States. So illegal smugglers, who gained the nickname "snakeheads," developed various methods to sneak Chinese into the country. (Indeed, their nickname -- shetou in Chinese -- refers to their ability to move people, snakelike, along circuitous routes and through border controls, according to Chinese immigration experts.) Estimates on the number of illegal Chinese smuggled in each year range from 10,000 to 50,000. Using midrange numbers of people and smuggling fees, the snakeheads could be overseeing an industry worth more than $1 billion a year. "Sister Ping," a snakehead who was caught in 2000 and -- after evading authorities for a few years -- was sentenced to 35 years in prison just this March, made at least $25 million over the past two decades by smuggling in more than a thousand aliens at $25,000 to $45,000 a person, according to the FBI. Experts say that most of the illegal immigrants come from Fujian province in southeastern China, tapping into Fujianese networks emanating from New York City's Chinatown to find jobs in factories and Chinese restaurants around the country.

    The snakeheads bring migrants into the United States by airplane, boat, and automobile.

    Thousands of Chinese tried to get into the country by boat in the 1990s, including 300 passengers on a ship called the Golden Venture that ran aground off New York City in 1993. Ten people died struggling to swim to shore. But the Coast Guard saw a dramatic reduction in Chinese coming by boat by the end of the 1990s, in part because of the dangers demonstrated by the Golden Venture and other sea-smuggling mishaps. Still, 22 illegal Chinese immigrants were caught at the Port of Seattle in April after they arrived hidden in a cargo container from China, and the Coast Guard apprehends a few dozen illegal Chinese a year. Coast Guard Lt. Kevin Puzder said that interdiction efforts at sea have helped deter snakeheads from using big ships. "We see onesies and twosies, maybe upwards of five [Chinese] mixed in with other nationalities," Puzder said. (Thousands of Ecuadorians, Haitians, Dominicans, and Cubans still try to get to the U.S. by boat each year.)

    Snakeheads also fly immigrants to Canada and Latin America and then smuggle them over the land borders. Nearly 1,600 Chinese aliens were caught by the Border Patrol or by Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents within the country in 2004.

    More and more, according to several immigration scholars, illegal Chinese immigrants are requesting direct flights into the United States. Sometimes the snakeheads arrange for people to be included in official business delegations to the United States, relying on corrupt Chinese officials to smooth the way for, say, two or three illegal immigrants to join a group of 15 actual business people, said Ko-lin Chin, an expert on Chinese immigration at Rutgers University (Newark). Chin said that snakeheads also set up marriages with U.S. citizens, permanent residents, or Chinese students so that illegal immigrants can fly directly into the United States. Snakeheads instruct their "customers" on how to claim asylum because of China's one-child policy or because of religious persecution of Falun Gong members, and how to request bail if they're detained, Los Angeles-based lawyer Daniel Deng said. "There are too many loopholes in the asylum process," Deng said. "As long as you make the claim for asylum, whether the claim is valid or not valid, the [snakeheads] can get you out on the street."

    Sometimes the snakeheads anticipate that clients who fly into the United States will be taken into custody by immigration officers when they arrive at American airports. In one case, a Chinese woman and her child were caught at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York in April 2003. Her snakeheads expected that she would be held for no more than six months and then released from federal detention. They even planned to pick her up from the detention center so they could help her find work to pay off the $90,000 smuggling fee she had agreed to before she left China. (The woman cooperated with authorities and helped get her snakeheads indicted in federal court last February.)

    The woman's snakeheads knew they could rely on a maximum six-month detention because of a 2001 Supreme Court decision. Zadvydas v. Davis bars the Homeland Security Department from holding most noncriminal illegal aliens for more than 180 days if there's no reasonable expectation that the alien will be returned to his or her home country soon.

    For citizens of most countries, the limit is not a problem for U.S. immigration officials, since it usually takes fewer than 90 days to process a deportation order. But for Homeland Security to send an illegal alien back to China, Chinese officials must first issue travel documents allowing the immigrant to return. The Chinese government is so slow that of the 1,930 Chinese detained by Homeland Security since October 1, only 175 had been sent home by the end of March.

    David Venturella, a former Homeland Security official who tried from 1999 to 2004 to get the Chinese government to more quickly repatriate its citizens, said that the Chinese blamed lax American asylum and refugee rules for attracting illegal aliens. "They argued that it's our policies that draw these people to the United States," he said. Venturella ran into a host of additional issues trying to return Chinese, from difficulty translating documents and proving aliens' identities to dealing with uncooperative government officials.

    "It's not something they would like to handle," said Chin of Rutgers. Chinese officials view immigration -- legal or illegal -- as a way to deal with crime and unemployment among the country's 1.3 billion citizens. Plus, Chinese working in the United States wire billions of dollars back to China each year, helping to improve the economy. "Chinese authorities in public may say all the right things, but privately they will ask you: 'Tell me one bad thing about having these Chinese smuggled out of our country,' " Chin said.

    Zai Liang, a Chinese immigration expert at the State University of New York (Albany), said that the combination of the Chinese government's attitudes and American immigration policies make the United States an attractive destination for illegal immigrants. Chinese -- particularly those from Fujian province -- live illegally around the world, including in Japan, Taiwan, Australia, Canada, and Europe. But experts say that the United States is the most popular destination because immigrants believe that the U.S. is the least likely to deport them and the most likely to grant them citizenship. "Somehow, you can always manage to stay," Liang said. "That's the perception in China."

    Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff traveled to China in April and agreed to what department officials described as an "initial framework" for speeding up repatriation of illegal Chinese caught in the United States. Chertoff said at the time that 39,000 Chinese currently have deportation orders. Two months later, Homeland Security officials say negotiations with the Chinese for specific arrangements and procedures for actually deporting them are "ongoing."

    Doris Meissner, head of the Immigration and Naturalization Service during the Clinton administration, had similar discussions with the Chinese during the 1990s. "We thought we made some progress, but there were just a lot of bumps on the road," Meissner said.

    She said policy disputes over human rights complicate negotiations with Communist China, but also noted that the Chinese do little to prevent their citizens from emigrating illegally, let alone to take them back. "It's pretty hard to get them to be cooperative on returns," Meissner said.

    One stick that American negotiators could use would be to restrict travel visas issued to Chinese who want to visit the United States. The U.S. did just that in 2001 to the tiny South American country of Guyana, which was refusing to take back more than 100 Guyanan criminals arrested in the United States. The visa restrictions lasted only a few days before Guyana capitulated.

    But Guyana is the only country in recent years to face that sanction. Meissner and other former officials said it's unlikely that the U.S. would use such a measure against China given the importance of trade between the two giants of the global economy. "It's hard to imagine that ever would be used," Meissner said.

    Meanwhile, all the talk of amnesty and immigration reform in the United States is likely to have an unintended consequence: more illegal immigration from China, experts said. In the early 1990s, President George H.W. Bush granted a small amnesty-style program for Chinese students after the 1989 Tiananmen Square standoff -- just a few years after the 1986 amnesty approved by President Reagan. "There's a saying in China," Chin said. "Every four or five years, they are going to legalize illegal immigrants." Some advocates of a "path to legal citizenship" say that only immigrants who have been in the United States for more than two years will be allowed to seek legal status, but Chinese immigrants believe that false documents suggesting a lengthy residency in the United States will be easy to obtain if immigration reform passes. "The snakeheads are probably working very hard now to send people in before it happens," Liang said.

    You Can Keep Them
    Some countries actively avoid taking back their citizens who are caught illegally in the United States, while others drag their feet, knowing that the Homeland Security Department can only hold aliens in most cases for six months before releasing them into the United States. The lengthy detentions drain the department's budget.

    Country Aliens caught Annual cost of detention
    and released

    China 72,315 $31.2 million
    India 28,540 $8.5 million
    Jamaica 11,568 $20.5 million
    Iran 7,039 $3.6 million
    Vietnam 5,807 $11.7 million
    Ethiopia 4,454 $3.0 million
    Laos 3,302 $4.5 million
    Eritrea 637 $0.5 million

    Source: Homeland Security Office of Inspector General.
    Aliens as of June 29, 2004; detention costs for fiscal 2003


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