Skip to comments.Golden Venture Survivors Face Another Hurdle
Posted on 04/27/2006 5:17:20 AM PDT by Calpernia
Golden Venture Survivors Face Another Hurdle
NEW YORK (1010 WINS)
-- Few Americans have lived through the kind of adventures that brought Arming He to the United States from his Chinese homeland.
NEW YORK -- A Chinatown businesswoman who prosecutors described as one of the biggest "snakeheads'' of all time was sentenced to 35 years in prison Thursday for her role in organizing human smuggling schemes, including the doomed Golden Venture voyage in 1993.
Smuggling of Immigrants Is Detailed as Trial Starts
By Julia Preston, New York Times, May 17, 2005
The notorious "Sister Ping" went on trial May 16 in the Federal District Court in Manhattan in New York City on charges of kidnapping and hostage taking.
Chen Chui Ping is the woman suspected of being responsible for masterminding the smuggling of hundreds of illegal Chinese immigrants into the United States. She allegedly purchased the Golden Venture, the freighter that caught international attention when it ran aground on a beach off Queens in 1993; 10 illegal aliens drowned while trying to swim ashore.
Federal prosecutors say Ping successfully moved hundreds of illegal immigrants in the cargo holds of ships and kept them hostage in New York warehouses until they paid her fees -- up to $40,000 each.
Ping's lawyer, Lawrence Hochheiser, argued that Ping's only involvement with people smuggling was incidental to her underground but legal banking house.
It would seem that the Immigration and Naturalization Service is guarding the wrong borders, according to Joan Blinn, a pro-life activist who has taken interest in the Golden Venture case. "They're guarding their own territory and their own sovereignty, at the expense of human rights. There are people who have offered to provide homes for every Chinese person in jail now but the INS would rather keep them locked up, away from the media and away from visitors."
Congressman Henry Hyde (R-Ill.) and Chris Smith (R-N.J.) sent a scalding letter to both the Justice Department and the State Department earlier this month; in it they ask for information that could prove Clinton administration bungling has led to refugees being sent back to face gulag-style re-education camps and slave-labor political prisons.
"There is evidence, in the form of repeated statements by Chinese officials, that the Chinese government regards resistance to its population control policies as a form of political opposition" worthy of severe punishment, the letter to Secretary of State Warren Christopher and Attorney General Janet Reno says. "Do the Departments of State and Justice disagree with this assessment? Is a forced abortion or sterilization just a normal law-enforcement technique that we should not regtard any differently than other actions of sovereign nations?"
Rep. Smith chairs the House committee that oversees human rights issues. "These are victims of forced abortion and forced sterilizations. We're trying to get the facts, but I consider this one of the most important human rights issues in the world today, and I think I can promise that Congress will be considering the issue very carefully."
Access to the refugees has been rare; one member of the press who managed to get in to speak to women in the Mississippi prison reported that "Dottie" (a name given to her by jailers) described her ordeal at the hands of a government determined to enforce its one-child policy. Dottie "gasped between tears as she described bleeding and cramps she suffered for four years after Chinese doctors forced in an intrauterine device following the birth of her second child," writes Nancie Katz in the Houston Chronicle. "When she paid a private physician $200 to remove it, word got out. The police came to sterilize her." Other women have described the forced abortion of full-term babies, while men describe their homes being leveled because they dared to have a second child.
Qiu He Je is happy living in congested quarters in the middle of New York Citys Chinatown, in conditions that would make even the most hardened survivalist cringe. Qiu has no heat in the winter and no air conditioning in the summer. He must share one toilet and shower with several dozen men living in his decrepit hallway. He has not put his two children to bed in four years and cannot begin to think of sending for them when he is unable to support even himself. His only contact with his family comes twice a week, when he calls them with a phone card offering a special long distance rate to Chinas Fujian province. Yet he does not regret emigrating to the United States. "Although things arent so good right now, I still have hope," Qiu said.
Zheng En Lai*, 26, feels lucky to have arrived safely in the United States, but her most difficult times may lie ahead. Zheng is still looking for work that will pay well enough to chip away at the $58,000 smuggling debt she says her family now owes to loan-sharks in China. Her journey to New York City from a tiny farming village in Fujian was anything but smooth; besides having her fraudulent passport confiscated in Venezuela, she was detained by the Immigration and Naturalization Service in Miami and later sent to a county jail. Her lawyer, whose actions in court might ultimately decide her fate in America, pays her little regard. The only time he spoke with her directly, she says, he berated her for telling the "wrong story" to the INS. Even so, she feels her journey was blessed. "Coming from somewhere like China to somewhere like the U.S is like paradise. It all depends on luck," Zheng says.
Many of the undocumented Chinese immigrants who have entered the United States in recent years were smuggled into the country. They pay Chinese smugglers known as "snakeheads" tens of thousands of dollars to arrange passage from China to the United States. The trip is grueling. These immigrants must often survive any number of egregious conditions as they hopscotch around the world, such as hiding away in suffocating cargo containers or filthy ship galleys for long periods of time. All the while, the immigrants know they could be picked up at any time and sent home by the INS. If they are caught leaving China by local police, they may face torture, extortion and even death.
Yet they still come, and in increasing numbers. By all accounts, the rate of Chinese illegal immigration into the United States is growing at a breakneck pace. In just two years, the number of illegal Chinese arrested by the INS nearly tripled, from 656 aliens in 1997 to 2,585 in 1999, according to the latest figures available. News of Chinese-American success stories and Americas vast earning potential reach the shores of China, where sending a son or daughter to the United States has become an unparalleled status symbol. There, the power of the U.S. dollar is revered. 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. The geographic and economic conditions of Fujian make it a prime territory for smuggling activity. It is located on the Chinese coastline, with easy access to routes out of the country. And its export economy has made Fujian the second richest province in China. To find greater economic opportunity, a Fujianese has only to look to the West.
The snakeheads who make it their business to transport human cargo from Fujian may be wanted as criminals by the U.S. government, but in China they are considered well-respected businessmen who provide a valuable service to the community. A smuggling operation may be as simple as the sale of forged documents to Chinese nationals. Yet the majority of Chinese who enter America illegally are ushered every step of the way by large international networks masterminded by snakeheads. The snakeheads often enlist help throughout the journey, calling on people such as fishermen to transport aliens to a mother smuggling ship or gang members to collect fees at the end of the journey.
The price for passage is expensive, and has almost doubled since the early 1990s due to the increasing number of Chinese clamoring to emigrate. Recent actions by the Chinese government may account for much of the price increase; officials have begun to tighten patrols at Chinas borders, elevating the risk of successfully reaching America. Many times the emigrants even risk their lives for the opportunity to start a new life. In June 2000 at the port of Dover, England, customs officers found 58 Chinese emigrants suffocated to death in a poorly ventilated trucking container. According to The Observer of London most of them had paid snakeheads up to 20,000 poundsabout $27,800for the passage to England. The incident received vast attention in the international press, casting global attention on the Chinese smuggling problem and placing pressure upon Chinese law enforcement. According to the U.S. State Department, the Chinese government considers it embarrassing that so many of its nationals are willing to take on huge debts and to risk their lives to leave China. Even with the increased government scrutiny, a Chinese national might pay a snakehead more than $60,000 for passage to America.
More often than not, the aliens final destination is New York City, which has not one but three Chinatowns, as well as other thriving communities of Chinese immigrants. According to Gerald Rose, who directs the Joint Asian Organized Crime Task Force run by the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the New York Police Department, the majority of Chinese immigrants in the city are located in one of three main Chinese centers: New York Citys Chinatown, Eighth Avenue in Brooklyn and Flushing, Queens.
Should the aliens arrive safely in the city, they face innumerable challenges to starting a new life. Many have left spouses and children behind. They almost always live in unbelievably small and overcrowded dormitory-style conditions, with nothing more to call home than one level of a rickety three-bunk bed. They almost always work long, hard hours at repetitive and exhausting jobs for low pay. They almost always have huge smuggling debts to pay off, either to their smugglers or to the loan sharks who fronted the money.
Yet the hardships do not seem to discourage them from pressing on. Most Chinese immigrants say the triumphs are well worth the adversity. To 35-year-old Qiu He Je, who was smuggled into the United States in 1996, sending hard-earned money to his family makes the struggle worthwhile. It does not matter that he has not laid eyes on his wife and children for more than four years.
There seems to be no immigration law the U.S. government can pass, or enforcement strategy the INS can invent that will stem the tide of Chinese aliens entering the United States. No measure can match the determination of these Chinese nationals to find a better life in America. Smuggling organizations are too complex and the snakehead phenomenon too new and mysterious for enforcement officials to effectively combat the flow of illegal immigration, according to a report from the U.S General Accounting Office, as well as sources interviewed for this story.
"The routes change and they are always just ahead of the INS," said Jules Coven, an immigration attorney in his 35th year of private practice.
"Were probably behind the curve in terms of responding," said an official at the U.S. Department of State who declined to be named. "Its still too early to really have a handle on the problem."
Qiu He Je, for one, is not worried about U.S. law enforcement. "Americas a democratic country," Qiu said in Mandarin, sitting on his tiny bunk in a housing tenement in Manhattans Chinatown. "The immigration service wont just grab you randomly. There has to be some reason." For him, the hard part is over; Qiu managed to escape Chinese officials on the way out of China. He is more afraid of the Chinese government, which imposes unforgiving punishment upon any Chinese caught trying to leave the country illegally.
"You will be handed to military police who beat you up and threaten you and fine you a few thousand dollars a month," Qiu said.
Zheng substantiates Qius story of abusive police. "If you have money, anything is possible," she said in Mandarin. For those with no money for bribes, the consequences can be dire. Her 28-year-old sister was caught as an illegal immigrant in Australia, and upon being deported back to China she was imprisoned for her infractions. "When she was there," Zheng said, "she saw men who got beat up, especially if they didnt have any money."
Yet officials at U.S. government agencies and watchdog groups offer conflicting statements, illustrating just how much confusion there is regarding the Chinese governments treatment of repatriated Chinese. Some corroborate Qiu and Zhengs claims, while others say that there is not enough evidence to support the charges that the Chinese government imposes fines or subjects repatriated Chinese to abuse in prison.
"Clearly China uses torture," said the State Department official. "But whether or not it is their official policy, or whether its just condoned or whether it happens in violation of government decrees is unknown."
A consultant at Human Rights Watch said, "When you see the police dragging people by the hair out of Tiananmen Square in front of tourists and the press, you would be suspicious that further mistreatment has happened out of sight. But the information is almost impossible to confirm."
Liu Qing, the president of the group Human Rights in China, said, "Its very likely there are human rights abuses during the process of repatriation, but people are not sent to military prisons." Rather, they are fined anywhere from $100 to $1,000 and then sent home, Qing said.
A prominent Western diplomat based in China, however, said that the Chinese government presents a lenient attitude toward imposing fines. "People that have been intercepted [by the Chinese government] have not mentioned anything about being fined," the diplomat said. "The government has told us that if you dont have the means to pay the fine, then you simply dont pay."
A very thin man with dark, complacent eyes, Qiu said he chose to come to America because of the stories he had heard from relatives who had left before him. Two of Qius cousins had emigrated to New York City in the 1980s, and often sent word back to Qius home in Fuzhou: The working conditions in America were great and there was much more money to be made than in China.
So when the opportunity to be smuggled into the United States arose, Qiu jumped. While he was in Thailand, taking a vacation from the construction job that had lured him from Fujian to Cambodia for a time, a Taiwanese snakehead approached him. For a down payment of $2,000 and an additional $33,000 upon arrival in America, the snakehead told him, Qiu could start a new and better life.
For more than a year, Qiu waited in Thailand for the snakehead to finalize his itinerary. The snakehead gave him $8 per day to subsist in the meantime, which afforded him food and shelter, but little else. Ultimately, his smugglers took almost 14 months to arrange for passage. There are other times, Qiu said, when immigrants leave within 20 days of recruitment.
Although smuggling often conjures up images of long sea journeys on smuggling ships, more and more, snakeheads are beginning to book their clients on commercial flights. When Qiu finally began his journey, he traveled with 27 other Chinese and a Taiwanese pair, one man and one woman. Qiu said he believed they were hired by his snakehead. "We flew a commercial airline with Western passengers," he exclaimed, eyes staring. "But I didnt like the airline food. I got sick of it. I just drank a little water."
Unlike Qiu, Zheng En Lai did not have to wait at all to begin her journey; she said she believes her snakehead already had a fake passport ready for her. Within a few days of meeting him in Guangzhou, the capital of the Canton province, Zheng boarded a plane with the ultimate destination of New York City. En route, her first three layovers passed without incident. From Guangzhou she flew through Hong Kong to Ho Chih Minh City, Vietnam, where she stayed for several days as a tourist. Yet her good fortune ran out during the last few legs of the trip, when she was so close to reaching America, which she calls "the beautiful country."
She passed through Amsterdam without incident, but in Caracas, Venezuela, while she was checking in for her next leg to Miami, a ticket-counter manager took a close look at her fraudulent passport and confiscated it, telling Zheng she would not be able to board the flight. Zheng left the airport with one of her snakeheads many employees, who had met her flight; he put Zheng in a house for safekeeping and contacted the original smuggler in Guangzhou. She stayed in the house for more than a month before finally reaching American soil.
The original snakehead sent a new passport by mail from Guangzhou, but it did not arrive until four weeks after Zheng landed in Caracas. She was back on track, but the INS in Miami would prove to be her biggest obstacle yet.
Alien smuggling from China began in the 1970s, according to the FBIs Rose. But it wasnt until the 1990s that masses of Fujianese began entering the country illegally.
Throughout the 1980s, the Cantonese population in New York Citys Chinese communities ballooned, expanding from New York Citys 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 governments 1989 crackdown on student protesters in Tiananmen Square; President George Bushs 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.
Most of these new immigrants came from Fujian, which became a hotbed of smuggling activity. Situated in southeastern China opposite Taiwan across the Taiwan Strait, Fujian is home to few state industries, which according to the U.S. Department of State, is a result of the Chinese governments desire to insulate the countrys economy from the influence of Taiwan. Fujian thus became an area of economic liberalization fueled by private industry, housing along its coastline numerous export industries such as coal, iron, hydroelectricity, sugar, tea and fishing.
Chinese organized crime in America quickly flourished alongside the increasing population of Fujianese. "With any new wave of immigrants, you will have an element that will prey on its own people," said Rose. "Thats how it starts off." Yet Fujianese organized crime has infiltrated Chinatown only within the last decade; it was not always the master of Chinatowns streets.
From the mid-1980s to early 1990s, violent Chinese gangs ruled the streets. Murders and shoot-outs were not uncommon during this period. According to Rose, enforcement was effective; between 1985 and 1995, 15 Chinese crime groups, such as the Fuk Ching gang, were indicted under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act. Many gang members were later jailed.
Since then, Chinese gang activity has changed in nature; organized crime has gone underground. "The gangs are no longer the hang on the street corner types," said Detective Ming Li of Chinatowns 5th Precinct. "Rather, they help run the massage parlors and gambling centers. Behind the scenes."
Enforcement officials have changed their strategies in tune with the shift in gang activity. "Violence is not as prevalent as in the mid-80s and early-90s," said Rose. "So now we look at the organizations, and try to dismantle these rings."
The vast smuggling enterprise of Cheng Chiu Ping is a prominent example of such a crime ring. An illegal Fujianese immigrant who arrived in 1981, Cheng is known to law enforcement officials as "Big Sister Ping" or "Mother of All Snakeheads." Cheng nurtured a smuggling operation from a souvenir shop in Chinatown, which earned her an alleged $40 million by 1994. "Shes the most notorious Asian criminal," Rose said. The culmination of her operation came in June 1993 when the now-infamous Golden Venture smuggling ship ran aground off the coast of New York City. Ten of the 286 aliens on board died, most of whom were Chengs clients. The survivors were eventually deported after being detained in America for as long as four years.
"Her downfall came when she got gangs to collect the money from the [smuggled] aliens as part of her criminal enterprise," Rose said. Cheng was arrested in 1994 during a trip to Hong Kong, but federal prosecutors say she bribed her way out of jail and went into hiding. She was re-captured last year and now faces extradition from Hong Kong to be tried in the United States on numerous counts, including extortion, illegal money transfers, hostage-taking and other activities relating to alien smuggling.
Her organization had an extensive influence on the citys Chinese community, and Cheng was a famous figure in all of Fujian, Rose said.
By many accounts, Chinatowns organized crime groups are becoming more powerful. And Chinese smuggling rings are flexible in structure, making them even more elusive to law enforcement than traditional Italian or Russian criminal enterprises. "When you look at traditional organized crime," said the anonymous Western diplomat in China, "you are looking at a very static organization. Youre looking at racketeering and loansharking theyre not as fluid as moving people."
The U.S. government is aware that the Asian gangs are gaining in strength. According to Li, during a 1995 Congressional hearing legislators discussed the need to rein in Asian organized crime as soon as possible. "They knew they had to control them early on, before they got out of hand, before they matured and developed into Italian Mafia-like structures," Li said.
Yet Chinese organized crime seems to have no intention of disappearing. Outside of smuggling, crime rings keep the money flowing with other illicit activities such as trafficking drugs and running gambling houses and prostitution rings, law enforcement officials said. Rose said that Chinese organized crime wants to increase its power by infiltrating Chinese communities with businesses it owns and operates. "It is the goal of any OC figure to eventually go legitimate," Rose said.
According to Ko-Lin Chin, an author and associate professor in criminal justice at Rutgers University, many of these crime rings already occupy legitimate fronts in Chinese communities, owning and operating restaurants, retail stores, vegetable stands, fish markets and video stores. On the higher end, some rings manage banks and employment agencies.
But no matter their size, Chinatown organized crime rings all have one thing in common: the never-ending quest for money. Their activities are "not for power or turf," said Rose. "Its to make money. Its as simple as that."
The Chinese smuggling trade can be very lucrative. A March 1999 INS background report valued the global alien smuggling business at $8 billion a year. Chinese alien smuggling accounted for $3.5 billion of that figure, according to a 1996 U.S. Department of Justice Inspections Division report. And the monetary rewards combined with the relatively mild legal penalties for smuggling will likely ensure that this figure only grows.
A snakehead can charge a Chinese national up to $60,000 for passage to America, while the costs for smuggling him might reach only $5,000, according to Rose. "You can imagine the profit margin," he said. "Smuggling does not have to be as extensive as finding aliens and putting them on an open boat to bring them to Mexico or Canada. It can be as simple as selling documents. You and I could do it."
Punishment for smuggling aliens is less than that for trafficking drugs. "If youre smuggling or trafficking heroin, you can receive a lengthy sentence," said Rose. A May 2000 report from the U.S. General Accounting Office illustrated law enforcements leniency in punishing smugglers. In 1999, the INS arrested 4,100 smugglers and more than 40,000 smuggled aliens, according to the report. Of the smugglers arrested, 2,000 were prosecuted, with a 61 percent conviction rate. Those smugglers convicted received an average of only 10 months in prison and a meager fine of $140.
"Over 99 percent of the toilet flushers know only two English words: political asylum," said Li, referring to illegal immigrants who destroy their fake passports while on airplanes flying into the United States. In a common practice, smugglers provide their clients with fraudulent passports or visas to get them onto a plane and out of China. They instruct the aliens to dump their papers into the planes lavatories during the last leg of their journey to the United States, and sometimes even instruct their clients to allow the INS to capture them. "They can then get into the system" that way, said the Western diplomat, "and then make a claim of credible fear or apply for some other benefit."
An alien need only prove a reasonable fear of political persecution for a judge to grant him asylum. "Most people are instructed [by snakeheads] what to say," said Steven Wong, who is the head of several Chinese associations in New York Citys Chinatown.
Without the proper papers to substantiate an immigrants claim in court, a judge often has only an immigrants court testimony to consider when deciding an asylum case. This frequently leads to asylum by the roll of the dice; a recent investigative series by The San Jose Mercury News found that whether asylum is granted can be arbitrary, depending as much on the judge presiding over the case as the merits of the case.
Yet the Chinese led the list of those granted asylum in U.S. immigration courts, according to the 2000 Statistical Yearbook of the Executive Office for Immigration Review, the Justice Department sub-agency that runs the nation's immigration courts. U.S. immigration courts granted asylum to 2,440 Chinese in fiscal year 2000, four times more than the number granted to Indians, who comprised the second largest group to receive asylum.
Filing for political asylum can buy time for immigrants. A judge may not hear a case in court for months after the claim is first introduced, giving an immigrant ample time to settle down and find an illegal job. These factors have contributed to fraudulent use of the political asylum claim by immigrants wishing to establish residency in the United States.
"There is no question that there is abuse of the asylum process across the board," said the State Department official. "Its clear that the cases that are approved are just a small percentage of the total claims made. So just by numbers, theres abuse of the process."
This abuse creates problems for U.S. law enforcement, because it becomes difficult to separate the legitimate asylum claims from the phony ones. And the GAO believes that the increase in human smuggling in recent years is due in part to the opportunity to file for political asylum.
In its intended form, the asylum claim addresses a basic human rights issue. The UN Convention Against Torture (CAT), which stipulates that a person may not be deported to a country where he or she might face torture, may provide another opportunity for those filing fraudulent asylum claims, according to the State Department official. "The threshold for political asylum is clear and its relatively difficult to prove," he said. "With CAT all you have to do is say theres a likelihood you will be tortured if youre returned." Even so, in fiscal year 2000, more than 94 percent of completed CAT applications were denied, according to the Executive Office of Immigration Review.
Winning asylum is not easy. Of Chinese asylum claims completed in fiscal year 2000, less than one-third were approved, according to an analysis of statistics provided by the Executive Office for Immigration Review. For those cases that are denied by the initial judge, the immigrants have only 30 days to file a motion with the Board of Immigration Appeals.
Zheng En Lai is waiting for her day in court, when a judge will hear her case for political asylum. That she is filing for asylum is no accident; her Guangzhou snakehead had instructed her about what to do during every step of the journey. Zheng said he told her to tear up her passport and flush it down the toilet during the flight from Caracas to Miami. He told her to be seized by the INS. He told her to ask for political asylum. He gave her the telephone number of a New York lawyer to call once she landed in America.
Her snakehead even fabricated a story for her to use as grounds for claiming asylum. "He said that based on my age, I should ask for the birth control claim," Zheng said. "He told me that I am at legal age to marry, but my boyfriend is not, so the state wouldnt let me get married." In reality she has no boyfriend. And in the end, when a Miami INS agent asked her why she was seeking asylum, she deviated from the snakeheads carefully constructed plan. "I told him that my family is very poor, and that my father was beaten to death by the Chinese government when I was very young," she said. "I was very scared, very, very nervous because I dont speak any English. I was so nervous I dropped the script."
When she landed in Miami without papers, INS agents sent her to a detention center. During her 17-day stay, she told her story to an INS agent who recorded her testimony. From there she was transferred to a local jail, presumably one of many county jails contracted by the INS when its detention centers become filled to capacity; Zheng said she does not know exactly where she was held.
From jail, Zheng called the New York lawyer. According to Zheng, the lawyer asked her what she told the INS and blew up upon hearing her answer. "He said, Whats wrong with you, are you stupid or something? Cant your brain turn a corner? The Americans will never give you political asylum based on the reason you told them."
Zheng was released after three or four days in jail; she said she was granted the status of "refugee." She immediately flew to New York to be reunited with her sister, who had emigrated to America several years before. Her court date will come in August. "My lawyer doesnt think Ill win," she said.
Qiu, who has been in the United States for more than four years, said he never considered applying for asylum. "Ive thought about getting legal, but the U.S. doesnt have the policy of giving out green cards and visas," he said. Unlike Zheng, Qiu seems at peace with his lot in America, despite having to wait for a chronic back injury to heal so he can once again find work. He has been waiting for two years.
Qiu first suffered a strained back while performing heavy construction work in Asia, and re-injured it while working in a restaurant in New York City. Today, if he stands for too long, the left side of his body goes numb. He must sleep on the bottom level of a three-bunk bed because he is unable to climb the ladder to the upper levels. Even though Qiu has been seeking treatment at nearby Bellevue Hospital for the past two years, his back has shown no sign of improvement. Once a week he injects himself with vitamin and treatment solutions that his wife in Fujian puts in the mail every so often. Yet still he is grateful to be in America, injured back, distant family and all.
Qiu said he is quite content with his living quarters in a rundown building at the bustling center of New York Citys Chinatown. "All I do is sit in my room," he said. "I also walk in the halls to talk to my neighbors and go to the grocery store every day." Outside of that, Qius daily schedule is as sparse as the seven-foot-by-seven-foot room that he shares with a cousin-in-law. A small burner is plugged into a lone wall socket, and a knee-high refrigerator chills small bottles of Poland Spring water and several containers of food. A crooked mirror adorns one wall.
Although Qiu has not seen his wife, 11-year-old daughter and 8-year-old son in four years, he said he is in no hurry to return to Fujian. Qiu still looks forward to the day he can once again work in New York City. His last job as a short-order cook at a Chinese restaurant in Queens earned him $1,500 a month, he said, eyes brightening. While he was working, he sent a portion of his earnings home every four weeks. Now his activities are limited and his relatives must cover his portion of the rent, $100 a month. All the while, his family in Fuzhou hopes that the next money wire will come soon. His wife and children havent received any money in two years.
Although she is healthy, Zheng has also had hard luck earning money during the six months she has been in America. "I dont speak English," she said. "I went to an American store and they couldnt use me." She was finally able to locate a job clearing tables, which paid less than $800 a month, at a restaurant through an employment agency, one of the many centers scattered throughout Chinese communities that help customers find work. Although the job was in Richmond, Va., Zheng was so desperate for work that she paid the agency $25 for the referral and moved south, away from her sister and her lawyer, who holds the key to her future in America. After just two months, she moved back to New York City because she needed to be near the immigration court at 26 Federal Plaza, should she be called for a hearing.
After being out of work for more than a month, Zheng recently found a job as a waitress at a Chinese buffet restaurant near JFK airport. She earns $1,000 each month for working six days per week. Her dream job would pay $1,500 per month, which she said would allow her to allocate $100 for rent, $100 for pocket money, $100 for telephone cards and the rest for paying off her debt in Fujian. Yet even with a $1,500 monthly income, it would take Zheng more than four years to settle her debt. She does not regret being indebted for the $58,000, plus interest, that her family owes to loan sharks in Fujian. To get to the United States, it is 100 percent necessary to use a snakehead, Zheng insisted. "Otherwise there would be no way."
Although her immediate concern is securing well-paying work, Zheng feels she must secure her familys financial future. "I always wanted to have money when I grew up," she said. "My father died when I was young. Now I feel the pressure to support my mother and younger brother," whom she left behind in Fujian.
The more prolific of the snakeheads run smuggling rings that are essentially large international networks that steer Chinese nationals along many routes into the United States. "They are in their 30s, 40s, 50s, and have connections to the motherland," the FBIs Rose said.
These networks are well organized and flexible, making the snakeheads quick to respond to any obstacles. "Its very much an alliance of convenience," said the Western diplomat. "Lets say that Im a snakehead and suddenly theres a clampdown at the airports I normally use, say theyre blanketing Hong Kong. I might call around and say, Do you know anyone who handles overland traffic out of China? Would you mind taking some people overland? Heres how we could split the profit."
Zhengs snakehead in Guangzhou did not work alone. Zheng said he seemed to be taking orders from someone in Canton, who would be the organizations "big snakehead." The big snakehead usually leads the smuggling ring, and has no direct contact with his clients. He would instead rely on a number of employees within the networkwho might be paid or bribed for their servicesto directly shepherd clients along the route to America. "Its an international syndicate," Li said. "The snakehead networks are amazing. Theyre organized worldwide."
Typically, an immigrant commences his journey in China, where he might encounter recruiters, usually local Chinese hired by the snakeheads. It is the job of these recruiters to fan out into Chinese towns and villages to gather "clients" willing to pay for the chance to go to America. In her hometown, Zheng was recruited by a local Fujianese who directed her to the Guangzhou snakehead. "My friend had an interest in these snakeheads, a sort of financial connection," said Zheng. "She was getting some sort of kickback."
Snakeheads might also pay former clients to recruit Chinese from their hometowns. Such a recruiter returns to China and often puts on a great show. "He will wear a brand new suit and a Gucci watch," said Li. "They show up in their home village with two chickens, one in each hand. He will invite many villagers to dinner at his house, and his mother will say, My son did so well in America. The trick is to lure as many people as he can to America, telling them all they have to pay is 10 percent down. He gets a cut of the fee."
Snakeheads might also bribe corrupt officials of the Chinese government to help Chinese nationals leave the country without delay. The officials are also paid to look the other way when smuggling ships sail past patrol points, Li said. On the shores of China and the United States, local fishermen are often paid to transport clients between land and mother ships.
Gang members in Chinatown are sometimes called upon to do the work on the front lines, such as collecting fees from aliens. "If a snakehead needs something done, they reach out to the kids," said Rose. These "kids" are often Fujianeseand sometimes Vietnameseyouths who typically range in age from 18 to 26 years, he continued.
Enforcers, usually older Chinese American gang members, are often hired to run strategically hidden "safehouses," where they detain aliens who have not paid the balance of their smuggling fees. Safehouses are common along the coasts of Central and South America, where many smuggling ships or planes first land after crossing the Pacific. Aliens entering the United States through Canada might be detained in safehouses in Vancouver or Toronto. Miami also is a popular destination spot for Chinese wishing to enter the United States. Robert J. Sidi, an immigration lawyer in New York, said, "In Florida they release people [from detention]. Thats why they go to Miami."
Once Zheng arrived in New York, enforcers drove her to a safehouse, which she estimated to be two hours from the city by car. "One of the snakeheads people took me to a secret place," she said. "I had already paid $1,000, and now the rest of the $58,000 was due." For two to three days she was held there, locked in her room. She would not comment about her time there. "Unhappy things some things are not worth remembering," she said softly.
She was held there until the original recruiter, her "friend who had hooked her up with the Guangzhou snakehead, called her safehouse captors. The recruiter assured them that Zhengs mother knew her daughter had arrived in America safely, and that the balance of the fee would be paid. Back in Fujian, Zhengs mother quickly began collecting from local loan sharks the $57,000 needed to settle the smuggling debt. Within two weeks, she had managed to collect the money. Fortunately, Zheng was not held captive for those two weeks. "When the people in Fujian had put in a guarantee that the money would be paid, I was let out," Zheng said.
As in Zhengs situation, snakeheads tend to release their clients, rather than holding them against their will until their smuggling fees are paid in full. "Criminals are smart," Rose said. "They know what the consequences are if they hold people." According to Rose, the smugglers are becoming more aware that if they hold aliens, they may be charged with kidnapping and hostage-taking upon arrest, he continued. "Thats 10 to 15 years in prison."
Zheng sees no reason why snakeheads would hold their clients. "It wouldnt make sense because they have to feed the immigrants," she said. Rather, they would decide what to do based on individual cases." Further, she said she believes the snakeheads do not worry about their clients "disappearing" before their fees are paid in full: "They know who introduced me, they know my family. And in a poor rural area, you cant just move. You dont move your familys grave and you dont leave it." The snakeheads networks reach far and run deep, she continued. "If youre a snakehead and you have the ability to bring someone out of the country, they have a lot of power and influence. They should be able to find me."
Another common notion is that these Chinese immigrants suffer as indentured servants, forced to work in American restaurants for years on end to settle their smuggling debts. But these reports may be exaggerated. "The concept of being indentured servants, thats a government spin," said Coven, the immigration attorney. "Once they pay the money, theyre free people. Or sometimes theres a trustthey pay the trust back."
Rose agreed. Smugglers and their clients "work out an agreement, its not like an oath to work for the guy," he said. "Its lets make money, so as long as aliens can assure their snakeheads they will get paid, theyre free to go."
Travel agencies in Chinatown might help clients plan vacations, but many also help aliens fill out asylum applications or arrange airfare back to China should they be deported. Dealing with undocumented aliens brings these agencies in close contact with smugglers, and it is easy to see how they might easily engage in illicit activity, said Coven.
Some travel agents defraud unsuspecting aliens, promising them legal representation and green cards for a fee. In a common scheme, a travel agency refers an alien to one of the agencys hired lawyers, who relinquishes a cut of his fee for the referral. "These travel agencies are not authorized to represent aliens," Coven said, "yet the travel agents retain lawyers to represent [the aliens]. Theyre all over town."
Attorneys hired by travel agencies are often allowed only limited contact with their clients; these "$100-a-day lawyers," as they are known in the industry, often meet their clients for the first time just minutes before their court hearings. Jeffrey Baron, an immigration attorney, said he has seen these lawyers in court. "It happens all the time," he said. "There will be an efficient-looking young person with folders, with a cell phone. They work for the travel agencies maybe theyll assign cases to attorneys right there. Lawyers take cases the same day. Right there, theyre preparing, 20, 30, 40 minutes before they go in."
"In many instances you get what you pay for," Coven said. "These travel agencies are not hiring the most competent attorneys in the world. They take advantage of unknown aliens."
Cyrus Mehta, an immigration lawyer and the chairman of the Immigration and Nationality Committee of the New York City Bar Association, is also concerned that the aliens are not being properly represented. "When travel agencies get involved in the process, theyre not bound to any ethical rules like an attorney [is]," Mehta said. "If an attorney crossed the line, they can be criminally prosecuted, whereas travel agents are not regulated and thats where we have all the problems. A lot of the immigrants are misled."
Baron said he has proof that these agencies not only exist, but also actively recruit lawyers to join their fraudulent schemes. Baron said he received phone solicitations from travel agencies when he first began his private practice two years ago. "I used to get calls the first few months we opened," Baron said, "I was approached five or six times. Maybe someone would say Hey, I can send you a certain number of cases, how much do you charge? The lawyer would give a fee. He would be told that theres a certain number of people coming into such and such airport "
Baron said the agencies also told him he would have to surrender a portion of his attorneys fees for each referral. "Its unethical to split a fee with a non-attorney," Baron said. "Thats against the rules of the bar association," Coven added.
Some immigration law firms may also be involved with alien smuggling and other illegal activities. Last year a prominent immigration attorney was indicted for assisting smugglers. In September 2000, Robert Porges was indicted on forgery and other charges. His law firm allegedly earned more then $13 million from falsifying at least 6,000 asylum applications over the past seven years.
Attorneys hesitate to say whether law firms are becoming increasingly involved with snakehead activity, often saying that the Porges case is the exception, not the rule. "Ive never seen this before," said Nicholas Kaizer, the attorney for Sherry Porges, the wife of Robert Porges. "I think its an isolated prosecution of a respected law firm. But its a growing trend going after attorneys."
Mehta agreed. "I dont believe this is widespread," he said. "One should be careful that the work of a few people does not affect or taint what other lawyers do on behalf of asylum seekers. These lawyers are doing a very difficult job."
Steven Wong, the Chinatown businessman, said he believes that Porges is not the only immigration lawyer involved in alien smuggling, but he declined to name the firms he suspected. "Some attorneys in New York crossed the line," Wong said. "They cross the line when they know theyre working for smugglers, bail out clients and hold immigrants until the smugglers show up to collect their money."
Employment agencies help Chinese in the community locate available jobs, but snakeheads may exert their influence here as well. "Hiring or relocating people is part of the mix," said Rose. "And some employment agencies are a front for smuggling."
"At 8 or 9 a.m., you will see 200 to 300 people standing in front of these agencies," said Li. "If you show up with a truck and yell out Who needs a job, you will be mobbed within seconds."
Some benevolent associations may also be linked with organized crime; their offices and meeting halls dot the streets of Chinatown. There are two types of benevolent associations, according to Li. The first is the family association, which acts as an alternative to banks and loan sharks. "For individuals without credit cards, this can be useful," Li said. "Usually the association rates might be just one-tenth of a percent lower than what loan sharks charge." For aliens who still owe thousands of dollars to their smugglers, family associations are one option. But even though their rates might be slightly lower than that of a loan shark, or hustler, that is not saying much. According to Wong, these loan sharks lend money at interest rates of two to five percent compounded monthly. At these rates, an alien must pay a staggering $200-$500 a month in interest on every $10,000 he borrows, Wong said. Loan sharks often operate as just another department of a snakehead organization, he added.
Business benevolent associations, on the other hand, run their organizations like casinos, relying solely on proceeds from gambling. "When an individual has no place to go, they go to these associations to play mah-johngg or pai gow," Li said. "The association will take interest off the gambling that happens. Its illegal in New York."
According to Li, both types of benevolent associations are tied in with tongs, international syndicates that protect interests in criminal enterprises, such as the gambling and prostitution houses in Chinatown. The FBI has worked on cases in the past that involved benevolent associations, according to Rose. "Mostly money laundering," he said.
Many ethnic associations in Chinatown may exist only to provide a legal front for smuggling organizations. "There are about 20 smuggling factories in Chinatown," Wong said, "and theyre all using associations as a front. Each serves their own people from their part of China."
Catching these smugglers, given their international connections and the solid cultural ground they often occupy in Chinese American communities, is difficult at best. Government reports say the snakeheads always seem to be several steps ahead of law enforcement officials. When the INS increases border patrols at known smuggling points into the United States, the smugglers simply find new routes. Smugglers are getting better at what they do; the General Accounting Office cites the increasing "professionalization" of smugglers, which allows them to quickly change methods in response to enforcement measures. And although the Chinese government is cooperating with international law enforcement more and more, it still does not place a high priority on stopping illegal immigration. Meanwhile, more and more aliens are using smugglers to come to the United States.
"Clearly Chinese organized crime is growing and its impact on the U.S. is growing," said the State Department official. "But we dont have enough resources. Were still getting a handle on the problem."
"Alien smuggling is something new for the FBI," Rose said. The Joint Asian Organized Crime Task Force was formed by the FBI and the New York Police Department in the 1980s in response to a troubling increase in the violence of Asian street gangs. As the violence has decreased, enforcement is responding in kind. "We look at organizations now," Rose said. " Were looking to dismantle these rings."
Further, the INS does not place a high priority on catching smugglers or illegal immigrants. "The only time INS acts is when they might hear of a safehouse with over 100 people," Li said. "They have to take action. Other than that, enforcement is lax, or non-existent." And if the INS raids such a safehouse, it has little capacity for housing the aliens it finds."
Rose underscored the problem. "Say the INS gets five illegals from a restaurant raid," he said. "Where are you going to put them? You know theyre going to come here anyway and claim political asylum."
The 2000 GAO report found that INS investigations and intelligence-gathering efforts were inefficient and fragmented. "These impediments make it difficult, if not impossible for INS to meet the challenges posed by increasingly sophisticated major smuggling operations," the report concluded.
There is evidence to suggest that INS enforcement efforts may even have a detrimental effect; stricter border inspections appear only to cause smugglers to find new routes. According to Mark Thorn, a spokesperson for the INS in New York, "The snakeheads are getting more sophisticated. Theyre more entrepreneurial now."
Even so, the INS said it believes its enforcement methods are effective. Responding to Lis comment on lax INS enforcement measures, Thorn said, "Thats just another allegation. When is the last time you saw a boat unload hundreds of people?" Thorn said the INS office in New York has trained its airport representatives and agents who identify fraudulent documents well. "The word has spread," he said. "People are coming into JFK less. People dont come through Kennedy."
To its credit, law enforcement has begun to recognize that the incentives to smuggle humans must be reduced or eliminated before smuggling is to stop. The Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 increased the penalties for smuggling humans. If caught, persons who knowingly bring illegal immigrants into the United States face up to 10 years of prison and possible fines for each alien smuggled. When an alien suffers bodily injury, the penalty jumps to 20 years, and if death should result, the smuggler faces life imprisonment or execution.
New federal guidelines have increased the number of smuggling prosecutions. The law now calls for prosecution when a smuggler has endangered others or smuggled 12 or more aliens at a time, among other conditions. The INS has established new partnerships with federal enforcement agencies. An interagency Border Security Working Group focuses on smuggling by sea and air. The Justice Department has initiated a task force to ensure cooperation between various enforcement agencies. Other federal entities involved in the fight against smuggling include the National Security Council, the U.S. Customs Service, the Drug Enforcement Agency, the Coast Guard, and the CIAs Office of Transnational Issues.
In Lis opinion, the international cooperation needed to dismantle these globally-connected smuggling rings does not exist. "With the lack of cooperation from Interpol and a lack of connections in China, it is very difficult to catch these people," Li said. The bribery of Chinese government officials involved in smuggling also presents an obstacle. "Somewhere, the message is lost in there," Li said. "Its a corrupt government."
The General Accounting Office report found that the increasing sophistication of smuggling operations has made smugglers quicker and more successful. "Due to the increased professionalization of smuggling organizations," it stated, "routes and operational methods can be quickly changed to counter INS enforcement measures."
The State Department official said, "Its a classic cat and mouse game. Whenever law enforcement finds some techniques and cracks down, [the smugglers] will look for other techniques."
The China-based Western diplomat said of the snakeheads increasing sophistication, "They have forced us to have to change what we normally do. How would you investigate the alien smuggling scheme of the hour? Well, when we go out and stop boats, all of a sudden [migration by that method] would stop. When we are able to disrupt something like that, we then shift the playing field, make them have to use things like airports. You change the playing field, to put the ball back in law enforcements court so you have different ways of dealing with the issues."
The fluidity of the smuggling organizations makes it even more difficult for law enforcement to deal with. "Theres no one kingpin," the diplomat said. "I dont think you can say, all you have to do is find so-and-so and take them out, and you will stop all alien smuggling." The snakeheads peripatetic nature and the ease with which they elude different laws in different countries compounds their elusiveness, the official continued.
Smuggling operations of the future will surely continue to streamline their methods and find new, more efficient ways to smuggle human cargo. While the government has made strides by indicting alleged criminals such as Big Sister Ping and Robert Porges, the snakeheads are becoming more sophisticated. According to Steven Wong, snakeheads are beginning to use the Internet to send encrypted e-mails to colleagues around the world, detailing their operational plan. And a snakehead in China can zap a photo of a client to his enforcer in the United States, with accompanying instructions to secure the alien when his plane lands or his ship docks. "Im waiting to see one day if the snakeheads use satellites," Wong said, laughing.
Meanwhile, Qiu He Je continues to live in New York. He still waits for his back to heal, anticipating the day he can once again work in a restaurant, and praying that he can soon stand in those long lines at the Bank of China with a wad of cash to send back home to his family in Fujian. Zheng En Lai hopes to secure better-paying work soon, so she can stand in the same lines at the Bank of China and send home enough money to lower the debt she still owes for her passage. She said she doesn't worry much about her upcoming August court date, when a judge will decide whether to grant her asylum. "I havent given it much thought what to do if Im denied," she said. "Right now I think about making what money I can."
>>>While the government has made strides by indicting alleged criminals such as Big Sister Ping and Robert Porges, the snakeheads are becoming more sophisticated. According to Steven Wong, snakeheads are beginning to use the Internet to send encrypted e-mails to colleagues around the world, detailing their operational plan.
nw_arizona_granny found this in the Okinawa Yahoo Groups
Cal, your Chinese illegal thread is very interesting.
I was thinking about the Okinawa group a couple days ago, do you still have the url?
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