- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 18, 2000

U.S. officials say the recent discoveries of dazed, dehydrated and dead Chinese laborers "shipped" to the United States in cargo containers show again how difficult it is to stop the flow of illegal immigrants.

As Immigration and Naturalization Service officials explain it, they're battling shrewd, tightly organized gangs that have infiltrated the United States. The criminal cartels have built an $8 billion-a-year business on the economic distress of people in many poor regions and by relying on "the cultural pressures that push the young to emigrate."

There's also evidence that the gangs exploit the greed of U.S. business owners who help them smuggle their human cargo into America.

Well before last week's discovery of 15 Chinese men huddled with three dead companions in a stinking, almost airless, metal cargo container at the port of Seattle, Louis F. Nardi, head of the INS' smuggling and criminal organizations branch, testified at a congressional hearing.

"Alien smuggling organizations operate internationally with near impunity," he said. "Public corruption in source and transit countries contributes to a smuggling organization's ability to move large groups of aliens destined for the United States."

He continued:

"The number and sophistication of alien smuggling organizations [has] increased dramatically [since 1966] and poses a threat not only to our border enforcement activities but to our national security as well."

Said Ken Elwood, a commissioner in the INS' enforcement division: "The money the gangs earn from alien smuggling is turned into racketeering. It complements drug running, prostitution and other criminal operations. That's really important to note."

In the last three weeks, U.S. officials have detained 136 Chinese who were smuggled in cargo containers on eight ships to ports in California, Washington state and British Columbia. The gangs have taken to routing would-be illegal immigrants to Canada then smuggling them across the border by land.

Although it's reported that in New York City alone there are 400,000 Chinese just from the Chinese province of Fujian, no one knows how many illegal Chinese, Hispanics or others have been spirited into the United States.

"It's almost impossible to say. We caught 1.5 million individuals last year all border crossers and many in the Southwest. But we estimate that more than half of all those caught are involved with some smuggling enterprise," Mr. Elwood said.

Mr. Elwood is a specialist in Chinese culture. He indicates in an interview that many Americans misunderstand the sophistication and power of the smugglers and the motivations of the people they smuggle.

The people trying to sneak into the United States, "are willing to have their families pay huge sums, to be indebted for $50,000 and more and to take terrible risks to get to a place where they can work and eventually send money home."

They work as indentured servants in sweatshops, restaurants, factories or as prostitutes supervised by cooperating U.S. business owners or gang enforcers for three to five years. Then they typically free themselves from their "transportation" debt and begin sending money home.

There are published accounts of homes in Fujian, for instance, where money from smuggled aliens in the United States has built mansions. They're "garishly decorated with ornate chandeliers and spiral staircases," an overseas correspondent of the Canadian magazine Macleans recently wrote.

"A marble plaque on the wall of an old shop in one community is dedicated to a local man living in America who paid for the village's concrete sidewalks and town square," the correspondent reported.

Mr. Elwood says the exodus of Chinese laborers has been going on for many decades. They go to Singapore, Indonesia, India, Pakistan, the Philippines, Australia and now, especially, the United States.

For a family to have a young person emigrate with the intention of eventually sending money back home is a "validated way to help the family. It is normal."

Individuals in China have a responsibility to the family, the clan and the village, Mr. Elwood says.

"The individual is an extension of family, and the family may direct younger people to go," he said. "It is an ancient rite of passage. And none of this is specifically Chinese. It applies to many of those now flowing across our borders. None of these people see emigrating illegally to another country as a crime, the way we do."

For these reasons and because smuggling kin to the United States has paid off handsomely for families, there's little incentive for the illegal aliens to cooperate with U.S. authorities. They won't even prosecute smugglers or "snakeheads" who rob, rape and torture them, as they frequently do.

Besides, as Mr. Elwood and others say, it's extremely hard to place informants in the tightly knit and tightlipped gangs. Most illegals distrust government officials and the smugglers' "clients" know that if they talk they put their own lives and those of their families on the line.

"We had a Chinese smuggler's victim shot in the head and dropped on New York's Grand Central Parkway," said Mr. Elwood. "We had a woman whose skull was crushed. We have had people kidnapped, taped from head to foot with duct tape and left in closets to die."

INS officials contend it's little wonder then that, as Mr. Nardi puts it, "alien smuggling continues to grow and prosper."

The INS has joined with the Coast Guard, the FBI and other federal agencies to curb alien smuggling. There have been successes.

A year ago, anti-smuggling agents cracked a 3-year-old ring that was smuggling as many as 300 Indian nationals a month into the United States at a price of $20,000 a head. The INS estimates the ring infiltrated at least 10,000 Indians into the country, grossing more than $200 million "derived from human misery and desperation."

Likewise, the INS' Buffalo, N.Y., office "crippled" a five-continent syndicate that had smuggled about 150 Chinese nationals into the United States. The cartel charged $47,000 per person. According to testimony, it took in $169 million in two years.

The smugglers sneaked the Chinese into Canada, provided false papers and drove them into the United States through the St. Regis Mohawk Territory on the U.S.-Canadian border. Indians on that 28,000-acre reservation helped the smugglers.

It's known that U.S. residents from China, Mexico and other countries at times hide persons from their native countries and that the gangs also run safe houses and provide transportation.

It also has been established that various U.S. companies actually arrange to have aliens smuggled in to work for them.

As Mr. Nardi said, "the INS has long maintained that there is a nexus between alien smuggling and illegal employment." To date, however, there has been just one successful prosecution.

That occurred in 1998 when agents demonstrated that the president and owner of Atlantic Finishing, a clothing company, recruited illegal aliens, arranged for a smuggling group to "supply … [the] easily … exploitable work force." Company employees falsified immigration forms and documents for the illegals. The company president was jailed for 10 months and fined $10,000. His company was fined $84,000.

"We can prosecute the smugglers," said Mr. Elwood. "We're working aggressively to prosecute. But, as I've said, it's difficult. And we're concerned."

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