12 Chinese stowaways are arrested after two weeks in cargo container

Seattle incident comes after two smuggling attempts in California

January 04, 2000|By SEATTLE TIMES

SEATTLE -- For more than two weeks, 12 Chinese men sat and slept crammed together in a 40-by-8-foot metal cargo container aboard a ship named the Faith.

Their journey ended early Sunday when the Immigration and Naturalization Service, acting on a tip, met the Faith as it docked at Harbor Island in Seattle.

Authorities took into custody the 12 men, all tired but apparently in good health, and three others the INS said were their smugglers, who were paid tens of thousands of dollars per immigrant.

The incident occurred less than a week after INS officials in Los Angeles and Long Beach, Calif., arrested 30 people suspected of being illegal immigrants who came to the U.S. hidden aboard cargo-ship containers.

Authorities had not determined whether the three smuggling operations are related, said Virginia Kice, spokeswoman for the Western region of the INS.

But, she said, there has been an increase in Chinese citizens attempting to illegally enter the West Coast as stowaways. Before the arrests in the Los Angeles area, the INS uncovered five smuggling attempts on the West Coast, including one April 18 at the Port of Tacoma when 19 Chinese stowaways were taken into custody.

"We have repatriated nearly a thousand Chinese nationals over the past year," Kice said, calling it "a troubling trend."

Authorities said the immigrants arrested Sunday had been en route to Seattle from China since Dec. 18 and had carried plenty of food and water.

But Seattle INS spokeswoman Irene Mortensen said conditions on the ship were "pretty dirty" -- buckets were used as toilets -- and that the immigrants spent the entire voyage in the padlocked cargo container, which was covered with a canvas-type material to allow air in.

The 12 Chinese citizens and their suspected smugglers, whose nationalities and identities have not been released, are being held at an INS detention facility. The illegal immigrants could be sent back to China in as few as 10 days.

"If they have a well-found fear of persecution, they would be able to speak with an asylum officer to see if they have a claim to asylum," Mortensen said. But, she added, "more likely than that they will be deported back to their home country."

Meanwhile, Mortensen said the INS and the U.S. attorney's office here are preparing to file charges of alien smuggling against the smuggling suspects.

If convicted, they could face jail terms of up to five years and a $10,000 fine for each person they tried to bring illegally into this country.

Kice called the smuggling operations "very sophisticated, very informed criminal syndicates."

Because the immigrants often do not have enough money to pay their fare up front, Kice said, they are made to work for years to pay their way. "Basically it's a modern-day version of indentured servitude," she said.

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