Chinese immigrants worry U.S. INS tries to curb illegal entries

February 20, 1993|By Robert Benjamin | Robert Benjamin,Beijing Bureau

BEIJING -- The interception earlier this month of more than 500 Chinese on a foundering freighter that was smuggling them to the United States represents just a small slice of a rapidly growing problem that has alarmed and overwhelmed U.S. officials.

While the plight of Haitians, Mexicans and other Latin Americans entering the United States illegally has drawn much attention in recent years, China has quietly and quickly become the fastest growing source of illegal immigrants to America, officials at the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) say.

The INS estimates that tens of thousands of Chinese illegally enter the U.S. each year; U.S. diplomatic sources in China and Hong Kong say the annual total may be as large as 100,000. This is three times the number of legal Chinese immigrants to the United States last year.

"We're struggling with our inability to stop this burgeoning flow from a country with such a huge population," John F. Shaw, the INS assistant commissioner for investigations, said from Washington in a telephone interview.

"We don't have the funds or resources to deal with this surge."

The 527 Chinese found aboard the East Wood, a Panamanian-registered freighter, have been detained at a U.S. defense facility on Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands. The U.S. Coast Guard first located the freighter Feb. 3 about 1,500 miles southwest of Hawaii.

They face repatriation to China, unlike thousands of their fellow countrymen who have made it to U.S. shores.

Each of the arrested Chinese had paid as much as 10 percent of a total fare as large as $30,000 for what turned out to be a miserable and dangerous six weeks at sea with inadequate facilities, food and water. The ship's crew reportedly preyed on the female passengers for sex.

Even if they had made it to the United States without detection, many likely faced a life of crime as indentured servants paying off their debts to the international gangs believed making hundreds of millions of dollars from this modern-day form of human trafficking.

Only a small percentage of the illegal immigrants from China are caught. Few of them are sent back home -- none last year, in fact.

Instead, those captured by the United States often have ended up at large in the United States for years. That's because of an extreme shortage of detention space, the lengthy U.S. process for seeking political asylum and the Bush administration's unwillingness to deport mainland Chinese following the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre.

INS officials are particularly worried about a sudden shift in the pattern of illegal immigration from China. Until recently, most illegal Chinese immigrants entered the United States by plane or land, sometimes via circuitous routes through Latin America.

Organized crime suspected

But while about 10,000 mainland Chinese still try to enter the country just through New York's Kennedy Airport each year, more and more are coming in large groups on ships hired in Hong Kong and Bangkok by Chinese "triads," or worldwide organized crime societies.

Once in the United States, many of the illegal immigrants are forced to serve the racketeers in prostitution, drug and gambling operations to payoff their debt to the smugglers.

The ships started coming in late 1991. Since then, INS officials say, they have intercepted 11 boatloads of illegal Chinese immigrants in or near U.S. waters.

They know of at least 10 other vessels they missed.

Moreover, INS intelligence reports indicate that about two dozen more ships are being readied near Hong Kong and Bangkok to transport mainland Chinese to the United States, said Verne Jervis, an INS spokesman in Washington.

The first five ships caught by the INS were relatively small, with less than 100 passengers aboard. But as the gangs found big profits in human cargo, larger ships have been employed -- the largest being the East Wood now moored at Kwajalein.

"We were already swamped, but this phenomenon of a large number of illegals on a single boatload just overwhelms us," Mr. Shaw said. "We don't have the jurisdiction to deal with gangs based overseas sending people across international waters to the U.S."

U.S. officials have tried to enlist China in combating the problem.

From time to time, authorities here have cracked down on rings selling forged foreign travel documents and even fake arrest warrants to support cases in U.S. political asylum hearings. Mr. Shaw of the INS said that China last year also promised to tighten its coastal watch.

But bribery of local Chinese officials likely plays a big role in thesmuggling schemes.

And U.S. diplomatic sources here say Chinese officials have told them that, as long as the United States is not actively deporting illegally entering Chinese, they have little sympathy for America's problems in coping with the tide of immigrants.

'A magnet' for illegals

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