Book Review of 'Human Smuggling' edited by Paul J. Smith

By Helen Leavitt
Volume 9, Number 2 (Winter 1998-1999)
Issue theme: "Secure identification and immigration enforcement"

Human Smuggling Chinese Migrant Trafficking and the Challenge to America's Immigration Tradition

Edited by Paul J. Smith

Washington, DC The Center for Strategic and International Studies

207 pages, $21.95

First of all, this book is a must reference for any serious student of Chinese immigration, legal or illegal. Chapter by chapter, it spells out the vast network of interests, both U.S. citizens and non-citizens, who play a vital role and claim a stake in the lucrative enterprise we know as human smuggling. If nothing else, it is an education that may leave the reader henceforth scrutinizing his President, Congressman, Senator, and waiter in a different light.

The book itself is a compilation by eight authors who have studied various aspects of the Chinese human smuggling trade, with emphasis on its modus operandi within China and the United States, the ultimate destination of the majority of westward-bound Chinese immigrants.

Most of the these essays were first presented at a meeting of the Pacific Forum, Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Hawaii in July, 1996 before representatives from the U.S. State Department, the INS, the U.S. Coast Guard, the International Organization for Migration, the Metropolitan Toronto Police Service, universities, non-governmental organizations, and the media.

The first portion of the book is devoted to diverse views of the "push" factors that currently drive most migration and emigration, with emphasis on China. These include population growth, unemployment, and economic disparities between wealthy nations and other countries.

The result? Lead author and editor Paul J. Smith, research fellow with the Asia Pacific Center for Security Studies in Hawaii, points out, "...smuggling organizations ranging in size and degree of sophistication are smuggling tens of thousands of people from poorer to richer countries..." in what has grown to a $7 billion per year worldwide operation. Since China supplies a large segment of their clientele, by 1991 there were "guesstimated" to be one half million Chinese living in the U.S. illegally.

Numbers tell the story. In China alone, the workforce of 707 million is estimated to be growing by 14 million annually. This surge represents the greatest market for the smuggling business since there is little job-creation. The Chinese Labor Ministry reports that unemployment alone could reach 153 million by the year 2000.

Meanwhile, the World Bank estimates more than 300 million Chinese (more than the total U.S. population) are living in poverty. Many in this population migrate to China's cities and along its "Gold Coast." Corrupt leaders of the coastal provinces provide a "channel" through which smugglers ply their trade.

Recipient countries such as Taiwan, Japan, Singapore, and Vietnam as well as Russia and the U.S. have complained to a Beijing that has little incentive to accept the return of illegals who have already emigrated.

Ling Li, migration specialist at the International Organization for Migration in Washington, DC, describes the group behavior adopted in specific provinces that promote out-migration. For instance, although Fujian is one of the fastest-growing provinces, peasants are not as wealthy as their U.S. relatives in New York City. When the U.S. government opened the door to political asylum for Chinese immigrants in 1989, the smugglers coached clients through with bogus pleas, for a fee of $35,000 per head.

Residents of Fujian who made it to the United States, "the golden mountain," sent back cash to finance apartment buildings which, in turn, convinced local officials that illegal immigration provided much-needed investment and income generation. Even more important, those who stayed behind began to be pressured to follow the early trailblazers. Since New York City already had a large Fujianese population before 1989, almost all illegal Fujianese live in the Big Apple too.

Ling Li notes that Beijing is implementing programs such as pensions and increased state grain prices to narrow the gap between rural and urban incomes in China in an effort to stem the flow of farmers to urban areas.

Perhaps author Jack Goldstone summarizes the situation best when he writes " China, incomes in average cities are more than twice those in rural townships and villages; incomes in major coastal municipalities such as Shanghai and Guangzhou are 3 to 4 times higher than those in smaller interior cities; and average incomes in the United States and Hong Kong are 20 times higher than the average income in Shanghai."

Goldstone, of the University of California at Davis, argues that Beijing's efforts to discourage migration to the cities by subsidizing rural jobs will not keep people on farms, since the government cannot afford the cost of matching urban wages. Likewise, a recently enacted restriction on work permits in cities may only create an even larger pool of frustrated migrants seeking overseas work.

Author Marlowe Hood, editor at Agence France Presse, examines the role played by Taiwanese in smuggling Chinese around the world. The major hubs for smuggling Chinese to the U.S. are in Latin America but are run and controlled by Taiwan-born Chinese with core networks extending from mainland Fuzhou, one of the more prosperous provinces, to Taiwan, to lower Manhattan.

His interviews with dozens of migrants and aspiring migrants revealed that in assessing their quality of life, these Chinese "take their measure, not against the objective yardstick of the poorer past, but against their subjective expectations for the future." A decision to risk being smuggled into the U.S. illegally therefore often becomes a collective, family-based decision.

As one successful migrant explained, "Look at it this way - in terms of income potential for the average worker, one year in the United States equals 15 Chinese years." Holding up a postcard of the Statue of Liberty, another interviewee says, "I don't suppose it means the same thing to me as it does to you. For us, it doesn't mean freedom. It means opportunity."

Willard Myers, III, director of the Center for the Study of Asian Enterprise Crime in Pennsylvania, examines the routes utilized by residents of the two coastal provinces of Fujian and Guangdong. He also describes the qinqing, a mutually reciprocal economic obligation that binds the family together to form a vast network of obligations within the community. As a group, the male family members select "seed" immigrants who, once established overseas, are duty-bound to sponsor other relatives.

Immigrants from Fujian bought into this "relative-based" immigration to the U.S. in 1986. The shetou or "snakehead," the alien smuggler, was prepared. To us he is a criminal - to those who employ him he is a businessman - vitally needed to fulfill those family obligations. By 1986, Manhattan's Chinatown became the shetou's customer base.

The actual process is relatively simple once the network is established. The shetou secures for each client a valid Chinese passport and exit papers plus air transport to Hong Kong, then a flight to Kennedy International after which the newly arrived illegal enters the streets of New York City without a hitch. Worse still, news of the very success of this operation spread rapidly to other provinces, fueling an ever-growing stream.

New York Newsday editor Anthony M. De Stephano sketches the role played by citizens of Central America, which he labels "America's Immigration Underbelly."

He describes Gloria Canales of Costa Rica, who

Central Americans in the U.S.

World compassion toward hurricane-hit Central America just keeps on coming. The latest The United States will not force some 150,000 illegal immigrants from Nicaragua and Honduras to return home for at least 18 months.

And as many as 165,000 illegal immigrants from Guatemala and 335,000 from El Salvador - two countries where the devastation was less - can avoid deportation until March 8.

U.S. officials figure that these immigrants will be able to send home millions of dollars if they are allowed to keep working in the U.S.

- From The Christian Science Monitor, Jan.11, 1999

[Editor's note 150,000, 165,000 and 335,000 add up to 650,000]authorities arrested in 1995 as a major player in an operation that smuggled an estimated 10,000 "exotics" from India, Pakistan and China through Central America and Caribbean countries into Mexico and ultimately to major U.S. cities.

A 1995 report by an inter-agency U.S. government working group on smuggling activities in Central America concludes "In addition to being a source of 200,00 to 300,000 illegal aliens who attempt to enter the United States, it has emerged as a transit route for some 100,000 aliens from outside the region (primarily Chinese, South Americans, and South Asians)." The report alleges that several smuggling rings and hundreds of independent smugglers operate in Central America, including travel agents, guides, and corrupt immigration and other government officials.

The network evolved when U.S. officials put pressure on some smuggling organizations located in St. Thomas and Cuba through prosecutions and Coast Guard interceptions during the early 1990s. The smuggling trade simply shifted its base to Costa Rica, Honduras and Belize, where it resumed receiving Chinese illegals flown from Europe.

Kenneth Yates is a detective with the Metropolitan Toronto Police Service and he devotes his essay to the role played by Canada as a corridor for smuggling illegals into the U.S. "...[T]he trafficking organizations prefer to use Singaporean, Malaysian, and British overseas passports because Canada does not require entry visas for those passports," he writes. Furthermore, Canada "has a reputation of welcoming almost everyone arriving at ports of entry, even though many government officials know that the majority of refugee claims are bogus," he continues.

Shortly after the infamous Golden Venture experience of June, 1993, smugglers shifted primarily to commercial flights bound for North America to ferry their clients who carry high-quality forged documents. Thus, successful government action must focus on interdicting aliens prior to boarding the aircraft, Yates points out.

The last author, Ko-lin Chin of Rutgers University School of Criminal Justice describes the deplorable conditions awaiting Chinese aliens when they arrive in America. Based on interviews the author conducted with social and church workers, members of advocacy groups, business owners and 300 illegals in New York's Chinese community, these conditions include gang-rapes, beatings, prostitution, strangulation, or sweatshop labor if the illegal owes any portion of the smuggling fee upon arrival.

In his foreword, author and editor Paul Smith states

Until the demand for cheap immigrant labor subsides in the United States, or until the U.S. government forces it to subside, human smuggling will likely remain a constant element in America's immigration tradition. From this perspective, it could be argued that human smuggling from China is largely a self-generated problem for the United States that will go away only when the government decides to seriously enforce its immigration and labor laws.

About the author

Helen Leavitt is a Washington political writer and author. Her articles have appeared in numerous magazines and newspapers.