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Immigrant Smuggling

By Brian Slattery

“These last ten years have been so difficult. Some nights, I wake up thinking of the hardship on the boat,” Dong Xu Zhi told Newsday. “But if I had to do it again, I would still come to the United States. There’s nothing like the freedom here.”

Dong was one of over 300 illegal immigrants on the rusting freighter Golden Venture when it ran aground 200 yards off the Far Rockaways on June 6, 1993. All of them ended up in the water as the freighter sank. Ten people died of drowning or hypothermia in the attempt to swim to shore.

Cheng Chui Ping, also known as “Big Sister Ping,” was a key player in the smuggling ring responsible for the disaster. A former New York City shopkeeper recently extradited from Hong Kong, she is currently being held without bail on charges of federal conspiracy. She has pleaded innocent to the charges.

Cheng’s case is not unique, however. Ten years after the Golden Venture disaster, all indicators suggest that immigrant smuggling is as common now as it was then, and it continues to be dangerous for the immigrants that brave the trip.

Only two months ago, on May 15, Tyrone Williams of Schenectady, New York, was charged with conspiracy and smuggling after 18 people suffocated in the back of a tractor-trailer Williams was driving. Investigators looking into the case uncovered a large smuggling operation and arrested 14 people, including smuggler Karla Patricia Chavez. According to the AP, Chavez led “a smuggling cell that was in charge of three other rings involved in the operation.” The same week of Williams’ arrest, 29 immigrants were found in a drop house in El Paso, some of them waiting for transportation to New York.

In March of 2002, the Coast Guard intercepted three boats, loaded with hundreds of immigrants from South America and the Middle East, off the coast of Mexico. A major law enforcement initiative in 2001 resulted in almost 8,000 arrests—75 of them smugglers—from 39 countries. A similar operation resulted in 415 arrests from at least 38 countries, and the confiscation of 337 counterfeit passports, visas, and other papers. Since 1997, customs officials abroad have caught more than 74,000 people trying to get to the United States using fraudulent documents.

Busting immigrant smuggling rings and catching illegal immigrants is commonplace along the US-Mexico border, as it has been for a long time. Since 1994, the Border Patrol has apprehended 11.3 million illegal immigrants; in 2001, it caught almost 1.2 million people. But some aspects of smuggling have changed.

More Sophisticated Smuggling

Illegal immigrants come into the United States by land, sea and air. They settle all over the country, but New York remains as popular a destination as ever, with its strong immigrant communities, promise of work, and a network that makes it easier for illegal immigrants both to enter the city and to find employment. According to Anthony DeStefano of Newsday, the Chinatowns of Manhattan, Flushing and Sunset Park have developed “deep economic resources to support illegal migration.” Robert Porges, a lawyer who represented 250 of the 300 immigrants aboard the Golden Venture, was convicted last year for helping smuggle immigrants into New York.

Smuggling is a lucrative enterprise, as immigrants are willing to pay high prices for what they believe is safe transport. According to the Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services, smuggling immigrants is a “global multi-billion-dollar-a-year industry.”

Smugglers may charge almost $2,000 just to bring someone from Mexico to Texas; a trip from Ecuador to New York can cost $8,000. These prices, exorbitant as they are for people who may make far less than that in a year, are dwarfed by the prices Chinese immigrants may pay: as high as $60,000 for air routes to New York, now that increased security at borders has made sea routes more difficult.

Yet illegal immigrants continue to come. Experts estimate that China has an underemployed population of tens of millions, many of whom are willing to risk the trip to New York. Hundreds of thousands of Mexicans, from almost every city and town in the country, make the trip every year. The tightening of US borders in the wake of September 11th seems to be little deterrent, though it may make the trip more expensive and dangerous. Smugglers, meanwhile, have become more inventive.

“There is no significant change in the number of immigrants coming to the US from China,” says Peter Kwong, chair of Asian-American studies at Hunter College, “though the smuggling has become much more sophisticated since 1993. The majority are coming by plane with valid visas—legitimate student visas, visitors’ visas, or business visas—that smugglers are able to purchase or get through bribery, corrupt officials, or phony marriages.”

“The paths of immigration are different now,” says Carolyn Turnovsky, a Ph.D. candidate at the CUNY Graduate Center currently researching Mexican and Ecuadorian day laborers in Sunset Park. “They’ve been cracking down on border crossings in urban areas, which has diverted the pathways so that people are crossing through the desert in Arizona. So the trip is more dangerous.”

“It’s also becoming more necessary to use a coyote because the immigrants aren’t familiar with the paths,” says Turnovsky. “Before, they could cross with or without coyotes. The price seems to have gone up, too. Some of the guys were saying the price used to be $1,000 or $1,200 to get across the border; now it’s $2,000.”

For Turnovsky’s day laborers, the rise in cost may have prevented some from coming to New York, but it also may have prevented others from leaving. “Three guys wanted to go home after September 11th, but they couldn’t,” says Turnovsky. “They didn’t make as much as they’d wanted to, and the trip was too costly and too dangerous, and they felt stranded in New York City.”

Despite all of this, immigrants still make the trip; smugglers, for their part, are willing to make money off of them. “The immigrants’ aim is to make money, and the smugglers provide, so that there is a mutual dependence between immigrant and smuggler,” says Kwong.

The Demand For Immigrants

The dependence on immigrants extends far beyond smugglers; it applies also to many businesses and the large informal economy in New York City.

Chinese immigrants work in construction, garment shops and restaurants as much as 90 hours a week, hoping not to get sick so they can continue to pay off their debts from the trip. Mexican and Ecuadorian day laborers in Brooklyn work small construction jobs; occasionally, they are hired by factories to load and unload inventory. They are picked on street corners by small employers also in Brooklyn.

Being illegal, of course, they are not protected by labor standards and receive substandard wages, something law enforcement tends to do little about.

“The issue is that there is very little control,” Kwong says. “All this law enforcement is a farce.”

“Law enforcement may be cracking down on the visible markers of illegal immigration, like the border crossings in the south, but they’re not cracking down on less visible markers like those working in New York,” says Turnovsky. “The local police don’t harass these guys. They figure they’re just trying to find work. Sometimes they get complaints from neighbors and then they harass them. But they don’t make a point of acting on something that’s illegal on the books—and certainly the employers aren’t deterred by local law enforcement.”

Immigrant smuggling is thus one piece of a large economic puzzle in New York City. “Our economy is addicted to illegal immigrants,” says Kwong. “We need people to come into this country and work under ambiguous legal status so they cannot defend themselves. It provides a whole class for exploitation.”

Immigrants, it seems, are aware of this. “The majority of immigrants are not misinformed,” says Kwong. “They know they won’t be treated by everyone else.”

But even after the tightened restrictions following September 11th, “the initial reasons for them coming—to help their families, to build a home—are resurfacing,” says Turnovsky. “They’re aware of the danger and the cost, but they see it that it just takes longer now.” When Turnovsky asked the day laborers if they were worried about dying in the back of a truck, as happened in May, they said no.

“How do you think I came here?” one said. “I was in a van with 15 people and I had to stand the whole way. You can’t believe what I went through to get here. They rob you, they beat you. But you do it. It’s fine. You do it.”


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