Stop/News: Women Keep Garment Jobs By Sending Babies to China

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Subject: Stop/News: Women Keep Garment Jobs By Sending Babies to China
From: Melanie Orhant (
Date: Wed Sep 29 1999 - 11:25:02 EDT

Comment: Another trafficking victim that doesn't get protect under the
Smith Bill!



Women Keep Garment Jobs By Sending Babies to China
By Somini Sengupta
The New York Times, September 14, 1999

She spent her days at home with her newborn son, knowing that every day she
did not work was another day without money to pay back her $20,000
smugglers' debt.

She spent her nights awake, hushing the baby so he would not disturb her
husband or the three other restaurant workers who shared their three-room
apartment in northern Manhattan. She named the boy Henry, and for four
precious months, she nursed him, even after friends warned that she would
soon have to let him go.

On the second Thursday in July, the woman, Xiu, finally did. Wrapping a
tiny gold bracelet around his wrist, she placed her son in the arms of a
friend of a friend, who, for $1,000, agreed to take him to China.

Xiu's mother is raising him there now, along with the 10-year-old daughter
left behind last year when Xiu joined her husband in New York. She plans to
bring Henry back when he reaches school age. But until then, she remains
here, waiting to be a mother to her child.

For weeks after Henry was shipped off, she would hear him cry at night.

"It seemed like she just gave up the baby to a complete stranger," said
Sara Lee, a social worker at the Chinatown clinic of St. Vincent's Hospital
and Medical Center, interpreting for Xiu one recent morning. "It's really
killing her. She said no words can express her sadness."

Xiu's story has become increasingly common among the city's newest Chinese
immigrants. Working long hours in garment factories for paltry pay, lacking
affordable child care and the safety net of an extended family, growing
numbers of Chinese immigrant women -- a great many of whom, like Xiu, are
here illegally -- are sending their infants to China, according to doctors,
nurses, social workers and labor organizers.

It is impossible to determine just how widespread the practice is, but it
appears to involve hundreds of babies a year in New York, if not more.

At the Chinatown Health Center, 10 to 20 percent of the 1,500 babies
delivered last year were sent away, according to Celia Ng, the nursing
coordinator there. And at the St. Vincent's Hospital Chinatown clinic,
according to Ms. Lee, one-third to one-half the women who seek prenatal
care say they plan to send their babies away.

Most of the mothers are married. And many give birth knowing that soon,
they, too, may end up sending their babies away.

The children, American citizens by birth, are usually raised by grandparents.

The expectation, though hardly a guarantee, is that the children will be
summoned back when they are old enough to begin school.

Their story is another example of the way families have been and continue
to be fractured by immigration. Men and women from all over the world come
to the United States, leaving children with relatives back home until they
gain a foothold.

And some immigrant parents send their American children, particularly
teen-agers, to the old country, to save them from troubled city streets.

Sending infants to the old country is not unique to the Chinese. But social
service agencies working in other immigrant communities say that while it
is not unheard of, the practice is still uncommon, usually limited to cases
of extreme hardship. Among Dominicans, for instance, it is usually young,
single mothers who send their children to the homeland, social workers say.

It is the combination of the large debts owed to their smugglers and the
long hours they must work that has made this practice increasingly common
among Chinese immigrants.

There is an additional cruel dilemma: having left China and its rigid
one-child policy, they are finally able to have larger families without
fear of penalties or recrimination. But as poor, illegal immigrants here,
they say, they are hard pressed to take care of their young.

That more of these mothers are sending their babies to China, people who
work with them say, reflects the tougher working and living conditions
facing Chinese immigrants today. With the threat of factories' moving
abroad driving down wages, and a steady supply of cheap, illegal immigrant
labor, mostly from Fujian Province in southern China, a new generation of
garment sweatshops has blossomed across the city in recent years, according
to garment workers' advocates and those who study Chinese immigration.
Wages have fallen, and it is common for garment shops to require employees
to work weekends.

"A lot of people simply have no time for their children," said Joanne Lum
of the Chinese Staff and Workers Association, who works with garment
workers in Chinatown and the Sunset Park section of Brooklyn.

Since her son was sent home, Xiu has returned to work. She sews women's
pants six days a week and sends home $200 each month. At least every other
week, she calls home. Every time, her daughter, Kei Wan, asks her to return

Kei Wan's chances of coming here any time soon are slim at best, her mother
said, since she would have to be smuggled in at great expense.

This was not the picture Xiu had in mind when her husband summoned her
here. They had been apart for eight years, she raising their little girl in
a small town in southern China, he working as a cook at a Chinese
restaurant in Manhattan. When Xiu finally arrived, she brought with her
little more than nervous dreams: to work hard, save money, and raise a
bigger, more prosperous family than she could imagine doing in China.

In a matter of months, Xiu became pregnant. And that is when she learned of
this unforeseen tangle in the immigrant life.

"It's not easy," she said, fingering the pictures of her children she keeps
in a plastic picture album, "to be a mother here."

Certainly, most Chinese immigrants do not send their babies away. They
manage by staying home, imploring an elderly relative to baby-sit or paying
for child care. Day care costs at least $20 a day in Chinatown, a large sum
for a garment worker like Xiu, who, in a six-day workweek, takes home less
than $300.

A couple of years ago, Ms. Lee saw a flier in the clinic bathroom. For a
fee -- the going rate is $1,000, plus air fare -- someone was offering to
take babies to China.

Around that time, she noticed an increase in the number of women who sent
their babies to China. So she began to ask all her prenatal patients what
they planned to do after giving birth.

Today, she tells each one how painful it can be for a mother to send an
infant away.

She explains how difficult it can be when the child finally comes back, but
as a stranger.

"I can't imagine being separated from my kids," said Ms. Lee, whose own
children are 1 and 3. "But they have a problem, no matter what."

Zhu, a single woman from Guangdong Province, says that sending her child
home is the only way she can imagine surviving in this country. Just before
her first child, Thomas, was born last month, Zhu, 36, gave up her job as a
home health aide in Brooklyn.

In February, Zhu, unmarried and alone in New York, plans to take Thomas to
China, where her own mother will raise him for a few years, until she can
afford to have him by her side once more.

Fortunately for Zhu, she is a legal immigrant.

She can take Thomas to China herself. When she can afford it, she can even

That good fortune is beyond Xiu's reach. The other day, the two mothers sat
next to each other at the Chinatown clinic run by St. Vincent's Hospital,
Xiu keeping her eyes on baby Thomas sleeping against his mother's belly,
Zhu admiring the pictures of Xiu's children.

They were talking of the choices they had made, and Xiu was wiping away
irrepressible tears.

How hard it was, she said, to walk into the clinic that morning and see
babies in their mothers' arms. How hard it was, she said, when the woman
who took Henry home called to say that he had cried incessantly on the
one-and-a-half-day journey. At least, she said, she had nursed him for the
first four months of his life. She would feel so guilty otherwise.

Would it have been easier, she wondered aloud, if she had been younger? A
quick rebuttal came from Angel, 33, from Guangdong. Five years ago, when
she was 28, her husband sent their daughter back home. It wasn't any
easier, she said.

At the time, Angel said, she had no choice. She had a good job at a
photography shop in Chinatown, and her boss had agreed to let her take a
month off after the birth.

There was no one to watch the baby all day, nor money for a sitter. Barely
4 weeks old, the baby was sent away.

Three years later, when Angel brought her back to New York, the little girl
seemed as miserable as her mother had been when she sent her away. She sat
on the sofa in the living room of their apartment in Woodside, Queens, and
cried quietly.

A small, sprightly woman who looks half her age, Angel still cries at the

It has brought her one lesson. She says she is not planning on any more

Melanie Orhant

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