Coming to America

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It was the most dangerous thing Chen Canting had done in his life. But as he crouched in a small fishing boat in the south China province of Fujian, he had no idea just how perilous. A dozen others huddled in the boat. Some of their faces were familiar, but the 20-year-old knew none of them by name. They had just one thing in common: all were bound for America. Illegally.

Chen told no one he was going except his father. The 50-year-old farmer from Meiyou village was not really surprised. Canting, the second oldest of his five children, was the most ambitious. Slightly built but with a surprisingly deep voice and an earnest air of self-assurance, No. 2 Son always wanted more than the village offered. Instead of carousing in the karaoke bars, he tried to set up his own business. He went south to Xiamen to trade seafood, but ended up losing money in the fickle, seasonal business. Undaunted, he was now attempting something far more audacious. He would entrust his fate to the "snakeheads" who illicitly spirit thousands of Chinese out of their homeland and into the promised land of America.

Canting's father could give his departing son nothing but a few warnings: be careful; stay out of fights; remember, plenty of people die on the ships or are caught at the other end and sent back. Father and son agreed not to tell the young man's mother. She would try to stop him. The night before he left, Chen took over from her as usual at the noodle stall he helped her run. After she went home, he quickly closed up the stall and made his way into Fuzhou, 15 miles away. At the main railroad station, the snakeheads were waiting for him, just as they said they would be.

A friend had introduced Chen to the snakeheads--Chinese gangsters who run human smuggling syndicates with links to Chinese communities all over the world. Shifty, violent men with a liking for gold watches and rings the size of plumbing fixtures, the snakeheads have a ruthless reputation throughout Fujian. Chen was scared of them, but he was also exhilarated at the prospect of going to the U.S. and earning "big money." (His name, village and some identifying details have been changed to protect him and his family.) For $37,000 the snakeheads promised to transport Chen to New York City. He didn't know how long it would take, what the route would be, what kind of risks he would endure. It was with a mixture of fear and excitement that he sat in the boat as it pulled away in the early hours of Sept. 3, 1999.

The fast-growing traffic in Chinese illegal immigrants is a modern-day kind of slave trade, harsh, uncertain and expensive--except there is freedom and opportunity at the end for those who survive it. Thousands of Chinese pay huge sums to cram into ramshackle ships and sealed containers in the hope of sneaking into the U.S. Rough estimates put the number at 10,000 for 1999. Some are caught--1,500 were repatriated last year--but most succeed in joining the estimated global tide of 275,000 illegals entering the U.S annually. A significant percentage also die trying. In January a container ship docked in Seattle with 18 Chinese in the hold. Three were dead in the filth at the bottom of a container; the others were on the verge of starvation. Still, like Chen, they keep coming.

The ship that would take Chen across the Pacific was waiting off the coast in the darkness. It was a rusty old Korean freighter with three holds. Chen was among 100 people packed into the rear hold; 60 more were loaded into one of the front holds, and the third held food and water for the voyage. When the hatches were slammed shut, Chen felt as if he were on a prison ship.

Life inside the hold was nightmarish. There were no windows; only one fan worked to suck out the stale air. "We were cold all the time," recalls Chen. The toilets were two buckets, one for men and one for women. Hygiene was impossible in such cramped conditions. "Everyone got eye infections. For a week my eyes were all red, and I couldn't see anything." The snakeheads periodically handed out water, rice, peanuts and some vegetables to their human cargo, but no meat, fish or tea.

Half a dozen snakeheads and three armed Cambodians stood guard. "They were Khmer Rouge--you know, assassins," says Chen. They allowed the inmates onto the deck once a week to wash in salt water. Otherwise Chen and the others were confined to the hold 24 hours a day. Once when he tried to sneak out, he was caught and beaten before being thrown back into the hold. The snakeheads would sit on deck and drink beer at night. Then they would go into the holds and select young women to come up on deck. "Nothing was said, but when they came back, everyone knew what had happened," says Chen.

The snakeheads did not waste much sympathy on their cargo. Several weeks into the trip, a man who was traveling with his wife and three-year-old daughter fell ill. For three days, the man was dizzy and experienced a sense of nausea and didn't know where he was. On the fourth day, the man died. The captain of the boat had his body tossed overboard.

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