The Blog

The War on Snakeheads

The Mexican border isn't the only front in the struggle with illegal immigration.

12:00 AM, Apr 19, 2006 • By JAMES THAYER
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

THE DOG LEAPT 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 January 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.