YORK, Pa. -- He was desperate to leave China, to flee the hardships of his home in Fujian province, to run from the repressive government that he said had forced his girlfriend to have an abortion and destroyed her house because she wanted a second baby.
The way out was expensive for Ling Huei. The cost was $5,000 down and a promise to pay $24,000 later. But there would be even a higher price to pay for this illegal immigrant.
There was a harrowing 100-day ride in a ship called the Golden Venture, with nearly 300 other Chinese men and women -- crammed onto wooden benches, given only a few sips of water each day, forced to brave such severe storms that Mr. Ling wasn't sure they would survive.
"I had heard a little bit that there would be suffering," said Mr. Ling, 22. "But I didn't expect so much suffering."
The Golden Venture ran aground off New York City last Sunday. Six people died after jumping overboard; most of the others were placed under arrest by immigration officials. Now Mr. Ling is in a York jail, with others who were brought here by the "snakeheads," the smugglers who squeeze millions in ransom from their human cargo and torture those who don't pay with sticks, burning cigarettes and claw hammers.
In another jail sits Mr. Yang, 35, an orange grower whose business was failing -- "the orange does not sell for very expensive price" -- so he raised $15,000 for the trip to the United States and left his wife and three children behind.
Mr. Yang wound up locked in a cramped Jersey City, N.J., warehouse with 56 other Chinese men, fed one daily meal of rice and steamed turnips, sharing one smelly toilet, staying quiet for fear of the beatings inflicted downstairs by the gangsters holding them captive within sight of the Statue of Liberty.
"We dare not make any noise," Mr. Yang said.
In the last two years, the dream of America has driven thousands of Chinese to take dangerous risks to come to this country illegally. They pay $25,000 to $35,000 apiece -- more if they are pregnant women -- to the smugglers known as "snakeheads" who work with Chinese gangs based in New York.
What they can't pay up front, they work off later, often in menial jobs or in the gang's illegal businesses -- drug sales, shakedowns, massage parlors. In some cases they are held captive in buildings for weeks or months while the smugglers extort money from any relatives already in the United States.
One New York gang, Fuk Ching -- "Young Fujianese" -- dominates the trade, subcontracting the immigrants to smaller gangs with names like the White Tigers, the Flying Dragons and the Taiwanese Boys. Immigrants who don't pay up are "severely beaten and tortured," says Lt. Joseph A. Pollini, who heads the New York Police Department's Major Case Squad.
"They're told the city streets are literally paved with gold," Lieutenant Pollini says. "They wind up working in a bean-sprout canning factory 16 hours a day."
The day after Mr. Ling's ship ran aground, police discovered 13 Chinese in a Brooklyn warehouse, where at least two had been threatened with execution. Last month, a freighter dumped about 200 Chinese at the foot of the Golden Gate Bridge. And two weeks ago, 57 Chinese were found in the locked warehouse in Jersey City.
The hardship is so great that some of the Chinese aliens interviewed in two jails last week -- in York and in and Manassas, Va. -- said they would not have come if they'd known they were signing up for such a horrible ordeal.
But none wanted to go back.