Out Of America: Taking a beastly route to the 'beautiful country'

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The Independent Online
MITCHELLVILLE - Only the lingering, unmistakable odour of rotten fish betrays the drama that came to this pleasant corner of God's good earth one balmy spring evening last week.

Mitchellville, in Maryland, is where you go to escape the violence and decay of Washington. It is about a dozen miles east of the capital, where the last suburbs merge into farmland, where perfectly flowering crab-apple trees line streets of houses with two-car garages, and where the nearest thing to civil disorder is an unmown lawn - not a stinking basement packed with illegal Chinese immigrants held as virtual slaves.

Today, 10500 Forestgrove Lane is outwardly pristine and empty. A builder is finishing repairs on the front door, smashed down by FBI and other law enforcement agents when they raided the three-bedroom house on 5 April.

Downstairs in an L-shaped area measuring perhaps 30ft by 30ft, they found 63 people, 'standing and sitting wall-to-wall', according to an FBI spokesman. Most were hostages smuggled half way round the world from China's Fujian province (although the police are having a hard job separating the captives from their jailers, even with the help of interpreters).

Also in the basement were containers of rice and other food, including fish. The stench was so repulsive that workmen who removed the debris the following day wore face-masks. 'They told me to keep the windows open for three days,' the builder told me, 'but you can still smell it.'

Apart from that faint odour, however, only an unusual quantity of stains on a grimy brown carpet bear witness to human misery's brush with Mitchellville. And not only Mitchellville. What happened in the suburbs of Maryland is but a tiny setback for what is a multi-billion dollar underground industry.

The Chinese call the US 'Meigo', 'beautiful country' - so beautiful that every year about 100,000 put up with an ordeal from hell to get there. The gangs who run the business typically charge dollars 30,000 (pounds 20,500). That astronomic sum buys passage on floating death traps like the Golden Venture, the tramp steamer that ran aground off New York last June, leaving 300 people to swim for their lives from its rusty hold where they had been kept for four months.

The contingent at Forestgrove Lane is presumed by the FBI to have been part of a shipment of 110 or so delivered by freighter to a Virginia port in March. Those who had paid were released. Of the rest, some were sent to New York, while the bulk were dispatched to the 'transit centre' in Mitchellville.

The brother of one captive says he was told his sibling would be beaten and killed if a ransom of dollars 30,800 was not paid. More probably perhaps, the victim would have disappeared into something akin to indentured slavery within the Chinese community, forced to do menial work for no money until the 'fare' had been paid off.

Some of the Mitchellville hostages did indeed appear to have been beaten. But there were no signs of chains or handcuffs. Escape was pointless. The new arrivals were without papers, spoke no English, and had no idea where they were. Indeed, they kicked up so little fuss that neighbours had no inkling of anything untoward.

'I saw a rental van once but it went straight into the garage,' said Victor Davis from across the road. Another resident of Forestgrove Lane admits to having spotted 'a couple of foreigners' come and go, but 'nothing out of the ordinary'. Most astonishing, no one even smelt anything.

So far only one person - a local Chinese fastfood restaurateur who was at the house when the raid took place - has been charged with kidnapping and sheltering illegal immigrants. He claims he was merely delivering a large take-way order.

As for his presumed hostages, their suffering will almost certainly prove in vain. The Immigration and Naturalisation Service (INS) is seeking to deport everyone found at the house - and even liberal America is in no mood to quarrel.

No one knows how many illegal immigrants are in the US; the INS says 3.5 million, and some specialists in Californian put the number at more than 8 million. But everyone agrees there are far too many, whose claims on public services merely push up taxes for everyone else.

The Republicans are milking the issue for all it's worth. California's Governor, Pete Wilson, has proposed that children of illegal immigrants born here be denied US citizenship, while Florida is suing the federal government for dollars 1bn spent on services it has had to provide to illegal immigrants. The uproar has obliged President Clinton to push a dollars 172m bill that would tighten border controls, and make visas harder to fake.

But will it make any difference? Probably not. As the good citizens of Mitchellville now know, that's the price you pay for living in the 'beautiful country'.

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