Northern U.S. Borders, Ports Popular Site for Illegal Immigrant Crossings

The dog lept for joy, scratching the corrugated steel with his front paws, tail wagging wildly. Then, remembering the protocol, the dog--mostly German shepherd, but maybe some lab thrown in--dutifully lowered itself to its haunches and stared fixedly at the steel container's doors.

Looming above was the black hull of the container ship Cape May, berthed at the Port of Seattle's Harbor Island Terminal 18. A 1,500-ton orange crane continued to lift containers from the Cape May's deck and lower them to the dock. A small rain had made the pier shiny.

When the trainer led the reluctant dog away, agents moved in, ratcheting open the container's metal doors. The agents' black coats were stamped with blocky white letters: POLICE. The doors swung fully open.

Sitting amid three-foot-high mounds of raw garbage were 15 Chinese men. They squinted against the sudden light and shifted nervously.

"Come out," an INS agent called in Cantonese. "One at a time."

After a moment, a man inside the 40-foot container asked in a weak voice "Can we bring some clothes?"

Soon the stowaways began emerging from the filth-strewn container, where they had been sealed since the ship had left Hong Kong 14 days earlier. To a man, they walked feebly, some of them kept upright only by the arms of an INS agent. Their jaws were slack and their faces blank. The agents guided them to a nearby spot on the dock, where the stowaways squatted, some leaning sideways, unable to keep themselves upright. White blankets were gently draped over their shoulders to keep off the Seattle chill.

Inside the container, almost lost among the rotting vegetables, soiled clothes, and buckets of human waste, were three bodies.

The 15 men who had survived the crossing were searched, given quick medical exams, then taken in white vans to an INS facility. A fourth emigrant would soon die. A coroner would conclude that the four had perished of starvation and dehydration aggravated by seasickness.

American eyes are turned to the south, where Mexicans slip en masse through the sieve at the border. But an estimated one-fifth of America's illegal immigrants enter via Seattle and other northern ports and border crossings. The Cape May container tragedy occurred on Jan. 10, 2000. Early this month 22 stowaways from Shanghais were found in a container offloaded from the M/V Rotterdam in Seattle.

So the trade continues but, unlike at the porous Mexican border, the trade does not continue unabated. The smuggling of Chinese into this country is dangerous, dehumanizing, and illegal, and American authorities are making significant strides in thwarting it.

Chinese call the United States the "Golden Mountain." Most Chinese smuggled into America come from rural villages in Fujian Province on the country's southeast coast, across the Formosa Strait from Taiwan. The State Department reports that workers in these towns earn only an eighth what someone would in Shanghais or Guangzhou, and a twentieth what they might in even a low-paying job in the United States.

Journalist Marlowe Hood says that in some Fujian villages emigration is viewed as the only way a young person can succeed, and that no industry has developed in some towns because most working-age men have left China. Sending family members overseas to work has been a custom for generations.

Ko-lin Chin, a professor of criminal justice at Rutgers University and the author of "Smuggled Chinese," says, "When people [in Fujian Province] get together they always talk about how their sons or daughters or relatives or husbands or brothers are doing in the United States."

Chinese call those who are smuggled out of the country man-snakes, and the organizers of the enterprise are known as snakeheads. Big snakeheads are the planners and investors, who often live outside China. Little snakeheads are recruiters who find customers in the Fujian villages.

The fee paid to the snakehead is substantial: the 22 Chinese found in the Rotterdam container had paid $40,000 each for the ride. It might've been a bargain. Professor Chin and Sheldon Zhang, an associate professor in the Department of Sociology at San Diego State University, have concluded that fees typically are $50,000 to $60,000 and may run as high as $200,000 per person. The State Department says that the smuggling of humans into the United States is a $10 billion annual business.

But where does a impoverished peasant from rural Fujian Province come up with the staggering sum of $40,000, more than he would earn in 20 years in China? He borrows it. Professor Chin says the average down payment made to the smugglers is about $3,000, an amount loaned by friends and family. The snakehead then carries the remainder on his books, to be collected in the United States after the emigrant finds a job.

Not all of the $40,000 is profit. Professors Chin and Zhang say that a big snakehead may pay up to $1,000 per client to the Fujian town recruiter, $8,000 per smuggled person for bribery at checkpoints, as much as $5,000 per emigrant for escort through transit points. And then there are the stateside debt collectors, who will often resort to kidnapping and torture, and who keep up to half the money they collect as a fee.

Are the smuggling gangs stand-alone organizations or are they tied to the entrenched criminal organizations called triads? Federal prosecutors believe the smuggling is run by two triads, Sun Yee On and Shui Fong. Founded in 1919, Sun Yee On is based in Hong Kong with a reported 25,000 members in the city and another 25,000 around the world. Shui Fong originated as a Hong Kong soft drink company union, and spent much of the 1990s in a vicious war with another triad, 14K, over control of Macau casinos.

But Professors Chin and Zhang, who interviewed 129 persons they identified as smugglers in New York City, Los Angeles, and Fujian Province, report they "were unable to find a connection between their subject's illegal endeavors and traditional organized crime organizations."

Smugglers strive to remain invisible, and reliable data on their success or failure can't be had, but U.S. authorities believe fewer illegal Chinese emigrants are coming to America via the sea. One of the reasons is the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, which made penalties for smuggling humans more severe.

Another reason is that the RICO (Racketeering Influenced and Corrupt Organizations) statute is now being used against the smugglers. And the Coast Guard is now requiring submission of crew and cargo manifests 96 hours before a vessel arrives in a U.S. port. Each crew member must be individually identified, another change in the law.

Commander Chris Carter, head of the Coast Guard Migrant Interdiction Division, says, "And those are all run through the various intelligence shops to determine which cargo and passenger vessels we're going to board and inspect."

The most dramatic effect of the new efforts is the decline of the use of fishing vessels to smuggle Chinese emigrants. In years past, snakeheads would purchase dilapidated trawlers and fill them with emigrants, sometimes stuffing hundreds of them into a hold. The crossing might take two months, during which the emigrants were often brutalized by the crew. Deaths were common. New U.S. laws and increased Coast Guard interdictions have reduced smuggling by fishing trawler.

Smuggling by freight container also appears to be decreasing. The smugglers' Rotterdam container found earlier this month was the first discovered in Seattle since the deadly Cape May container back in January 2000. Virginia Kice, a spokeswoman for Department of Homeland Security's Immigration and Customs Enforcement, told the Seattle Times that in the late 1990s finding stowaways at Los Angeles ports was almost a weekly event, but there have been only "two or three [incidents] in L.A. in the last two or three years." She terms it a sharp decline.

But it's hard to tell about overall numbers. Commander Carter says that the smugglers change with the times. "They're trying to fool us."

An example of their ingenuity: snakeheads now will provide mainland Chinese crews to legitimate Taiwan fishing vessels. The crew will work across the ocean, loading the vessel with fish, until the boat nears Guam or the American or Canadian coasts, when the crew will mutiny--sort of a friendly mutiny--forcing the skipper to drop them off on land. Commander Carter says the skipper then radios his Taiwan office, "'Well, they got off in Guam, and oh, by the way, I'm coming home with a load of fish and no crewmembers that need to be paid.'"

Another example: snakeheads increasingly deposit the emigrants in countries that have no laws against smuggling humans. A favorite is Suriname, the small nation squeezed between French Guiana and Guyana on the north coast of South America. Once there, Commander Carter says, the Chinese emigrants make their way to the United States in the hundreds of tramp freighters and fishing boats that work the Caribbean Sea and Gulf of Mexico.

If American authorities have had success--and they believe they have--certainly one of the reasons is the increased prison time for snakeheads who are caught.

Chao Kang Lin was an organizer who placed the Chinese emigrants in the Cape May container, resulting in four deaths. In his sentencing memorandum, Assistant U.S. Attorney Jim Lord described the torturous conditions in the container, where "Due to the darkness, many confused water bottles with bottles of urine," conditions so grim that one of the stowaways died within a day of leaving Hong Kong.

U.S. District Court Judge Barbara Rothstein gave no shift to Chao Kang Lin's plea for clemency, saying the Cape May smuggler's sentence must serve as a warning to those who would trade in human cargo.

Snakehead Lin was sentenced to the maximum allowed by law: nine years in a federal penitentiary.

James Thayer is a frequent contributor to The Daily Standard. His twelfth novel, The Gold Swan, has been published by Simon & Schuster.