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Riding the Snake : Packed into cargo boats and stealing onto planes, a growing wave of Chinese immigrants is entering the United States, drawn by American dreams and, increasingly, financed by Chinese mobsters.

June 13, 1993|Marlowe Hood | Marlowe Hood is a writer living in New York. A visiting scholar at Columbia University's East Asia Institute, he was a correspondent in Beijing from 1985 to 1989


ONE DAY IN THE SUMMER OF 1991, WITHOUT WARNING OR EXPLANATION, Zhou Wei and Xiao Chen were released from an Immigration and Naturalization Service prison in Texas. They had no money, no food and no idea where they were or how to contact the relatives in New York City they had never met. And it was pouring.

The two men, both just shy of 21, were overwhelmed with joy. For the first time since setting foot on American soil six months earlier, they were neither behind bars nor in chains. They swore an oath of brotherhood, vowing to help each other steer clear of trouble, work hard and pay off their enormous debts. Then, drawing on the smattering of survival English he had learned during the yearlong odyssey through Asian jungles and jails that had led him here, Xiao Chen looked for help. He got lucky. A sympathetic cabdriver gave them a box of Kentucky Fried Chicken, helped them call New York and paid for a motel room. The next morning, he drove them to the airport. Zhou Wei's uncle, who had prepaid their tickets, picked them up in Newark and rushed them to his Chinatown restaurant in Manhattan.

But when they got there, three members of the Fuk Ching gang were waiting at a table in the corner. Somehow, they had found out that Xiao Chen and Zhou Wei, each of whom owed a $25,000 balance on their smuggling debt, had been released. The enforcers, says Xiao Chen, escorted them to a "safe" house--safe, that is for the gang--and waited for the money to be delivered.

Today, Xiao Chen (the name, like Zhou Wei, is a pseudonym), is feeling good about his prospects. After working 100-hour weeks in a Chinese takeout for two years and four months, he has almost squared his account with the relatives who paid off the "snakehead," as smugglers are called. His petition for political asylum is pending and, in the meantime, he has a temporary work permit. He dreams, realistically, of opening his own restaurant within five years.

Zhou Wei is in a different situation. Arrested late last year, he is charged with criminal possession of a weapon in connection with a kidnaping and murder case yet to come to trial. Unable to procure the cash that day in Chinatown, he took the other option: becoming a member of the gang.

Xiao Chen and Zhou Wei, blood brothers no more, are the two faces of a multibillion-dollar trade in human cargo that originates in a small coastal region of southern China, wends its way through an ever-shifting smuggling network spanning the globe, and usually winds up, sooner or later, in a few square blocks around East Broadway in Manhattan's Chinatown.

The vast majority of the hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants from the Fuzhou area of Fujian province who have settled in the United States over the past decade are like Xiao Chen: conscientious workers building their futures with bare hands. Some are propelled by persecution in China, and thus qualify as refugees under U.S. law. Most who choose to "ride the snake," however, are drawn by the same sirens of economic opportunity that attracted their Cantonese compatriots to California's "gold mountain" more than a century ago.

But the same illicit traffic in human beings that is fueling a cheap-labor economic boom in Chinese-American communities across the country is also financing the rapid expansion of international Chinese crime syndicates on U.S. soil, syndicates whose stock-in-trade is heroin, credit fraud, prostitution, gambling, extortion and murder. A full report on U.S.-based Asian organized crime issued in December by a Senate subcommittee on investigations found that "every (Chinese) smuggling group examined involved Asian organized-crime figures." This, more than the small number of immigrants who become foot soldiers in these criminal organizations, is cause for alarm. It is also one of the most urgent challenges to American law enforcement since the rise of the Italian Mafia and Colombian drug cartels.

To date, it is a challenge largely unmet. Federal and local agencies have been slow to penetrate the interlocking web of Chinese triads, tongs and gangs. The INS has failed to stem the influx of illegal Chinese immigrants or to prosecute the masterminds who sneak them into the country.

In dealing with immigrant smuggling from China, however, many of the U.S. government's wounds are self-inflicted. Indeed, the INS, the front-line agency for all immigration matters, has been rendered virtually impotent by a confluence of factors: serious internal policy schisms, generous asylum laws that attract false claims for refugee status, budget cuts and trivial penalties for alien smuggling that embolden smugglers and discourage expensive prosecutions.

And only in April, after a crisis-response meeting in Washington of key U.S. attorneys and INS agents, was an interagency plan drawn up that adequately recognizes the crucial link between the Chinese "mafia" and what the INS calls "alien smuggling."

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