Rising tide of 'human smuggling': Shipping Chinese illegal immigrants to the US has become a criminal enterprise worth billions of dollars

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The Independent Online
AS US immigration officers yesterday processed and imprisoned more than 150 Chinese immigrants who had been dropped by a cargo ship near the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco the officials knew they had little to celebrate.

True, they had captured most of the vessel's illegal passengers and arrested the crew who staged the most blatant attempt to date to sneak a boatload of Chinese into the United States. But they also had further proof that they are dealing with a growing multi-billion dollar criminal enterprise.

The ship, the Pai Chang, which was seized by the US Coast Guard after an eight-hour chase, is one of an increasing number of vessels to cross the Pacific carrying thousands of young Chinese in search of a new life in the West. Less than a month ago a rust-bucket of a ship, its hold crammed with several hundred Chinese, was towed into San Diego; in December, a shipload of Chinese had to be rescued off San Francisco after they ran out of water.

The US government believes that the smuggling is the work of organised crime, whose operations stretch from China and Hong Kong to Mexico and New York. The illicit trade is believed to have lured heroin traffickers and Triad gang members, attracted by the knowledge that 'human smuggling' can make millions in profits but is only punished by jail sentences of four to ten months, if caught.

According to the US authorities, would-be immigrants pay smugglers up to dollars 30,000 ( pounds 19,600) for a journey that can involve weeks in dangerous and unsanitary conditions. When the US Coast Guard recently boarded a boat off Long Beach, California, they found 85 Chinese in a cabin meant for a dozen. There were people in the cupboards, squeezed under the sink and bent double on top of one another in the bathroom.

But, even if caught, the arrivals know they stand a good chance of staying. The US has taken a sympathetic view of applications for political asylum, especially since the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre. Last year only 89 of the 3,440 Chinese who applied for asylum were denied.

But, once in the country, the Chinese often face a dismal existence. Many find that, as undocumented aliens, they are only able to work in low-paying jobs in restaurants or sweat-shop garment factories. They usually gravitate to New York's Chinatown, where they can disappear without official trace. Far from realising their dream of a life of comfort and wealth in the 'land of opportunity', they find it can take years of what officials term 'indentured servitude' - slaving for long hours in squalid surroundings - before they pay off their smuggling debts.

On Monday, dozens of Chinese were found locked inside a cramped warehouse in New Jersey. They had been there for several months, apparently held captive by smugglers whom they were unable to repay.

TEGUCIGALPA - A man was shot dead when scores of Chinese being held for deportation attacked guards at a Honduran detention camp, AP reports. It was the third escape attempt at the camp holding 237 Chinese illegal immigrants at La Ceiba, 180 miles north of Tegucigalpa. The 220 men and 17 women were captured 15 days ago by the US Coast Guard on board a Honduran-flagged ship off the Florida coast and sent to Honduras.

(Photograph omitted)