News/US: Immigrants aboard Cheap labor demand only fuels smuggling practice

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Subject: News/US: Immigrants aboard Cheap labor demand only fuels smuggling practice
From: Melanie Orhant (morhant@igc.org)
Date: Wed Sep 08 1999 - 09:48:04 EDT


Immigrants aboard
Cheap labor demand only fuels smuggling practice
By John Zebrowski
Morris News Service, September 7, 1999

SAVANNAH - They call it the Golden Mountain.

In the streets of southern Chinese cities it has become a code between
those trying to get to America and those who might help. To reach it,
people are willing to promise up to $50,000 and pack into rusty trawlers
for a journey they might not survive. Once here, they staff the kitchens of
restaurants or sweat over sewing machines for 16 hours at a time for less
than minimum wage. Some are forced into prostitution.

They are largely invisible. But every so often, an event will occur that
will provide a glimpse into one of the world's largest illegal industries.
Every year, between 4 million and 5 million people are smuggled from one
country to another, a trade estimated by the United Nations to net
smugglers up to $12 billion. Organized crime is involved, as gangs realize
smuggling people can be even more profitable than drugs, prostitution or
Stinger missiles.

Fueled by a number of factors - including the breakup of the Soviet Union,
the tightening of immigration laws by the West and even the collapse of the
drift-net fishing industry - the smuggling of humans has reached a level
unseen since the peak of the African slave trade. The problem is so bad
that the world's governments have pooled resources to try to slow it down.

No slowdown seemed evident Aug. 12 when the Coast Guard, acting on a tip,
found 132 undocumented Chinese immigrants hidden in the cargo hold of the
freighter Prince Nicolas in Savannah harbor.

''This is such a huge problem it's almost staggering,'' said James Puleo, a
senior Immigration and Naturalization Service official in charge of
combating international smuggling for the State Department. ''It wouldn't
surprise me at all if there's one just like the Prince Nicolas somewhere
out there right now.''

In October 1998, the INS released a report estimatingthat 100,000 Chinese
enter the United States each year. Puleo said nearly all - including those
on the Prince Nicolas - come from Fujian, a Chinese province of 30 million
located across the South China Sea from Taiwan.

Some people have become fabulously wealthy there during the 1990s as the
government alternated between economic liberalization and political
repression, while many others have sunk deeper into poverty. Smugglers -
called snakeheads - have profited from both groups.

What makes Fujian different is its connection to the sea.

''It's gotten to the point where having someone in the family in America is
a matter of saving face,'' said Jana Mason, an analyst for the U.S.
Committee for Refugees who just returned from Fujian and Guam.

The flight from Fujian, though, is more than a matter of pride. For many,
the impulse to leave is simple desperation. A 1994 report by the Canadian
Security Intelligence Service warned the government of a looming flood of
Chinese refugees. The agency predicted a surplus Chinese work force of 200
million by century's end.

Bahmil Ghosh, a senior consultant for the International Organization for
Migration, a multinational group based in Geneva, said the number is a fair
assessment of the toll of rapid industrialization on China. Agricultural
productivity has declined, prices have soared and wages for millions have
lagged.

''In many rural areas, the best word to use is devastation,'' Ghosh said.
''The government recognizes there are problems. But so far it has been
unable to help.''

>From his office on a tiny island in the middle of the Baltic Sea, Holger
Juul Pedersen keeps watch for smugglers. His equipment on Bornholm, a
Danish island about 120 miles out to sea, is not a spyglass and searchlight
but a database and fax machine.

Pedersen is part of one of many international groups that have sprung up
around the world to combat smuggling. The United States works with dozens
of countries, mostly in Latin America. The Coast Guard stepped up its own
enforcement after the Golden Venture ran aground in 1993 with nearly 300
Chinese immigrants on board. As a result, smugglers had to get creative.
Snakeheads now funnel immigrants through nearly all the countries of
Central and South America. The Bahamas and Canada have also become favorite
places for immigrants to land before making the final trip into America.

Guam, a 1,700-mile sail from China, is awash with Chinese immigrants. Since
April, nearly 1,000 immigrants have been detained by the INS as they
arrived at the American territory in several boats described as barely
seaworthy. Mason said one broke apart and sank as it came into port.

>From shipping the immigrants to flying them through Moscow or South Africa,
to packing them into rickety trawlers for the trip to Guam, the smugglers
are always innovating.

''It's like a balloon,'' said Puleo, who was head of operations and
programs at the INS before moving to the State Department. ''We push one
way, and they go somewhere else.''

After the Chinese first mate, Tang Guo Jie, jumped ship in Sweden on July
27, the Baltic countries all knew the particulars of the Prince Nicolas.
They knew there were 132 illegal immigrants on board; that they paid nearly
$50,000 to make the trip (Puleo said the amount was $48,000); that Tang
said the captain, who claims otherwise, was himself a snakehead.

Pedersen said the man responsible for leading investigators to the ship has
been sent home. He is not optimistic of Tang's survival.

''I wouldn't be surprised if he's been assassinated already,'' Pedersen
said. ''We're not dealing with boys.''

The biggest shock for the Baltic countries was the existence of the ship
itself. Pedersen said they thought ship-borne smuggling had been
eliminated. Now they fear they could be missing others.

The 19 juveniles captured aboard the Prince Nicolas Aug. 12 moved to a
detention center in York, Pa. The rest of the 132 - minus three charged in
the smuggling - will probably be sent to one of the INS centers scattered
throughout the country. There they will join hundreds, even thousands more,
waiting in jail to hear whether they will be allowed to stay.

Today the INS estimates there are 5 million illegal aliens in the United
States. To keep more out, Congress has nearly tripled the agency's budget
since 1992. No other law enforcement agency has more officers allowed to
carry a gun.

For a person caught trying to enter the United States, the wait for a
hearing can take years. Wendy Young, an attorney with the Women's
Commission on Refugee Women and Children who studied INS detention centers
for two years, said holding immigrants is now the fastest-growing federal
prison program. Bed space has increased 140 percent since 1995.

A bigger INS, Young said, is not necessarily a more effective one.

Ghosh, who was a director at the United Nations and lectures around the
world on illegal immigration, said smuggling will decrease only when
industrialized nations realize they need to combat cheap, illegal, tax-free
labor. The demand for people to work in sweatshops, in the kitchens of
restaurants, out in the fields or on some construction sites is rising
throughout the United States and Western Europe. As long as it does, Ghosh
said, smuggling will, too.

''One of the biggest problems is how many reputable companies are
participating in this,'' he said.

Peter Kwong, an Asian-American studies professor at Hunter College in New
York, said before a congressional hearing a few months back that it is this
demand, more than anything else, that fuels smuggling.

''The system of illegal immigration begins,'' he said, ''with the employers
hiring and paying the illegals and ends with the smugglers being paid off
for their services to complete a full circle.''

So, sometime soon - maybe in Savannah but probably not - another Prince
Nicolas and its cargo of illegal immigrants is bound to show up.

****

Melanie Orhant
morhant@igc.org
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