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22 Chinese Stowaways Found at Cargo Facility in Seattle

The apparent human smuggling incident revives questions about security at U.S. ports.

April 06, 2006|Sam Howe Verhovek | Times Staff Writer

SEATTLE — After spending 15 days inside a cargo container shipped from Shanghai, 18 men and four women were discovered early Wednesday at the Port of Seattle. The stowaways made the arduous journey in the hopes of finding work here, officials said.

All 22 people, said to be in their 20s and 30s, were apparently in relatively good health after surviving the trip in the 40-foot container stacked on the cargo ship Rotterdam.

The container was equipped with water bottles, food, blankets, battery-operated lights and a makeshift toilet, said Michael Milne, a spokesman for U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

Milne said the Chinese citizens were part of a smuggling operation.

"There is no terrorism suspicion at all," he said.

All were arrested and will probably undergo deportation hearings, though some could remain in the country pending a criminal investigation into the operation, officials said.

The incident is the first large-scale smuggling attempt involving a cargo container to be detected in Seattle since several such incidents along the western coasts of the U.S. and Canada drew attention to the smuggling method in 2000 and 2001.

In January 2000, three of 18 people in a shipping container on the freighter NYK Cape May were discovered dead when the ship arrived in Seattle.

In a form of indentured servitude, such immigrants smuggled into the United States typically pay thousands of dollars for the privilege -- some of the money is paid upfront, but much of it comes later, after the immigrants begin working in factories, restaurants or elsewhere.

As Congress debates both port security and immigration reform, the Seattle incident underscores a potential major vulnerability in the system: Only a small fraction of cargo containers are fully inspected.

The Chinese immigrants were noticed by a guard on a routine patrol after they had crawled out of the container but before they could attempt to scale the barbed-wire fences at the port facility. The discovery renewed questions about how many such illegal entries go undetected.

The incident "is a stark reminder that we are not doing enough to keep our cargo container system secure," Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) said Wednesday on the floor of the Senate.

"This appears to have been a case of human smuggling," she said, "but that cargo container could have been filled with anything from a 'dirty bomb' to a cell of terrorists."

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