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From: Melanie Orhant (
Date: Thu Sep 02 1999 - 11:09:37 EDT

'Unspeakable exploitation' reaches Georgia
Illegal cargo often is absorbed into metro Atlanta's growing immigrant
Mark Bixler, Staff
The Atlanta Constitution, August 31, 1999, C1

Twice this month a rare public spotlight has shone twice in Georgia on the
illicit underground business of human smuggling.

First came the discovery on Aug. 12 of 132 Chinese men and boys in the
secret compartment of the Prince Nicolas, a freighter bound for Savannah
and Georgetown, S.C. Then, on Aug. 19, federal prosecutors in Atlanta
unsealed indictments accusing 13 people of smuggling Asian girls and women
into a life of forced prostitution in Atlanta and DeKalb County.

Since the late 1980s, thousands of people from rural China have promised to
pay thousands of dollars to smugglers to bring them to the United States
and other countries. They spend years after they arrive working in
conditions of indentured servitude to repay their debts.

In the early and mid-1990s, smugglers on the way to New York City brought
their cargo through Hartsfield International Airport in Atlanta, said Peter
Kwong, a Hunter College professor and author of a book on immigrant
smuggling. Smugglers who went from China to Central or South America and
then crossed the Mexican border also caught flights for New York from
cities such as Houston and Atlanta, he said.

Atlanta now has a large enough Chinese community to include underground
employment agencies that match smuggled immigrants with Chinese
restaurateurs and other businesspeople looking for cheap labor, Kwong said.
Smugglers, known as "snakeheads," have arrived in metro Atlanta to make
sure the illegal immigrants pay their debts, said Kwong and Marc Johnson,
police chief of Chamblee, one of the most ethnically diverse cities in

Asian businesspeople in Chamblee say snakeheads tell them to "hire these
people (smuggled from China) or else," Johnson said. The businesspeople, he
said, "don't take them as idle threats" --- they comply whether or not they
need employees, he said, because they fear violence if they resist.

"There's no question it's going on" in Georgia, Johnson said.

Aboard a smuggling ship

Experts say thousands of Chinese sneak out of their country each year and
often wind up working in conditions of indentured servitude to repay
typical smuggling fees of $ 30,000 to $ 35,000, costs that are 75 to 88
times higher than the average Chinese income of $ 400 a year.

Most passengers come from Fujian, a coastal province of 30 million people
in southeastern China with a history of migration, seafaring and overseas
trade. Snakeheads offer hope to people in a countryside of grinding poverty
that benefited at first from free-market reforms but saw its industrial
experiment founder when foreign investment poured into Fujian's big cities.

"People go to the villages and tell them what opportunities they have in
the U.S.," said Lani Wong, president of the Georgia chapter of the National
Association of Chinese-Americans. "They all think the United States is a
golden opportunity. They don't know that they'll probably end up working in
a sweatshop."

The immigrants have been found in recent years in or near California,
Canada, Georgia, Guam, Japan, the Northern Mariana Islands, Midway Island,
New Jersey, New York and Washington state.

The trips can be deadly. In June 1993, after the decrepit freighter Golden
Venture ran aground in New York Harbor, many of the 300 Chinese on board
leapt into the water to swim to freedom. Seven drowned or died of
hypothermia in a case that focused national attention on human smuggling.
Twenty-two people pleaded guilty to organizing the trip.

The stowaways on the Prince Nicolas were found beneath a hatch that was
bolted shut and covered with rope behind a locked door in a part of the
ship often filled with water to help it balance. Three levels of wooden
platforms used as bunks extended off different sides of a ladder descending
into the bowels of the ship.

On other ships, investigators found dank living quarters where stowaways
ate meager portions of rice and gruel from bowls nailed to tables. Federal
agents have described opening a secret hatch and being overcome by the
stench of urine, feces and vomit.

'A shameful practice'

Researchers say the trips began after 1986, when the U.S. Congress granted
amnesty to illegal aliens who were here before 1982. Organized crime groups
linked to the heroin trade saw the potential for huge profits by smuggling
people here and giving them fake documents so they could receive amnesty
and become legal residents.

Immigrants from Fujian "are often the most ambitious," said David Kyle, a
sociologist at the University of California-Davis, who has written a book
on immigrant smuggling. "They're not the poorest of the poor."

Even more immigrants from Fujian came to America after a decision made in
the White House a year after the June 4, 1989, massacre of hundreds of pro-
democracy protesters by government forces in Tiananmen Square, said Jana
Mason of the U.S. Committee for Refugees, a nonprofit advocacy group in
Washington. She said an Executive Order signed by President George Bush
made it easier for Chinese immigrants who feared persecution to receive
political asylum. Suddenly Chinese immigrants were citing fear of forced
abortion or sterilization --- the Chinese government limits married couples
to one child - -- in requests for asylum.

Many of those smuggled to New York City's Chinatown endure 80-hour
workweeks and face torture and beatings with stun guns, lead pipes and claw
hammers if they do not repay the smugglers on time, researchers say. In
1990 and 1991, New York police rescued three Fujianese men who had been
abducted, beaten and burned with cigarettes for failing to pay.

Efforts to crack down on immigrant smuggling are hampered, Kyle and Kwong
say, by corruption in China, way stations around the globe and the United
States. Last week, the U.S. Embassy in Panama said top Panamanian officials
helped thousands of Chinese sneak into the United States.

The federal government has taken steps to combat smuggling. In 1993, a few
weeks after seven Chinese from the Golden Venture died within sight of
America, President Clinton called immigrant smuggling a "major crime
problem" that engaged in "a shameful practice of unspeakable . . .
exploitation." He proposed reforms Congress adopted in 1996, including
increasing human- smuggling sentences from five to 10 years and letting
prosecutors target smugglers with wiretaps and anti-racketeering laws.

Smugglers discover Georgia

Stepped-up American patrols for smuggling ships in the Pacific have sent
many ships through the Atlantic and Caribbean, Kwong said. And trips by air
have replaced sea voyages as the most popular smuggling method. Flights are
more expensive but much safer for the passengers.

The most recent exploitative enterprise in Georgia came to light on Aug.
17, when federal prosecutors in Atlanta unsealed indictments accusing 13
people of smuggling Asian girls and women and forcing them to become
prostitutes in Atlanta and DeKalb County. Prosecutors say snakeheads handed
out forged identification papers and assigned agents known as jockeys to
accompany the women on flights from Asia. Court records say trip organizers
often bought airline tickets in their own names and gave their gate passes
to the women, relying on the inability of airline employees to distinguish
between male and female Asian names.

In the Prince Nicolas case, agents of the Immigration and Naturalization
Service are trying to determine where the stowaways were going and whether
an employer awaited their arrival. The INS said it might make arrests if it
identifies a business waiting for the Prince Nicolas.

The seven facing charges in the Prince Nicolas case face up to 30 years in
prison and fines of $ 750,000. Four crew members, including the captain,
are charged with transporting, smuggling and concealing illegal aliens.
Three " stowaways" face identical charges. An affidavit requesting arrest
warrants for the three quotes witnesses who identified them as the ones who
boarded the Prince Nicolas, threatened the captain and ordered him to
transport the Chinese.

Many Prince Nicolas stowaways not facing charges have requested political
asylum. It could take the government years to resolve their requests. The
INS has jailed them and crew members in metro Atlanta until officials
decide their fate.

Wong, the Chinese activist in Atlanta, said the plight of Chinese smuggled
here is worsened by the fact that they face deportation if they complain to
American authorities because they are, after all, illegal aliens. "They're
dependent," she said, "on the very people who are exploiting them."

Melanie Orhant

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