Immigrants take ever-more perilous routes to America

Story of Chinese stowaways in shipping containers illustrates how

Perhaps the only difference between Sui-Ming Tam and 300 Chinese stowaways - who last year promised smugglers as much as $50,000 apiece to pack them off to America in shipping containers - is time.

When Mr. Tam came over more than a decade ago, it took him four attempts, and he had to hide in the mountains for 13 days, then swim across a bay thick with sharks to Hong Kong. After that, it took five more years to find someone in the United States who would sponsor him - as little more than an indentured servant.

"I have to work for the people two years, pay them $400 a month," says Tam, a US citizen.

Today, the lure of America as gum shan - a mountain of gold - is as strong as it was then. And not just for the Chinese. As US officials ferret out traditional immigration routes, would-be citizens from all parts of the globe are increasingly willing to go to extreme lengths to cross the nation's borders.

More broadly, their desperation is fueling a multibillion-dollar-a-year worldwide smuggling enterprise that changes tactics as quickly as the US can adapt to them. But in addition, Tam's story - like those of the stowaways - offers a window into the forces that impel people to leave their homelands, as well as the challenges immigrants face in an often-unwelcoming country.

Smuggling's many forms

Besides the container-smuggling operations and mundane, if massive, illegal border crossings, a 1999 Immigration and Naturalization Service report reveals an array of smuggling schemes:

*In the "most complex alien-smuggling ring" the INS has "ever encountered," 24 smugglers were arrested in the Bahamas, Central America, the Dominican Republic, and the US for bringing in as many as 300 Indian nationals a month. Each illegal immigrant paid more than $20,000, and the INS estimates that more than 10,000 people entered the country during a three-year period. Gross profit to the smugglers: more than $200 million.

*Between 1997 and 1999, a criminal syndicate spanning five continents and including members of the St. Regis Mohawk Indian nation smuggled as many as 150 Chinese a month at Akwesasne, a reservation that straddles the US-Canada border.

*Atlantic Finishing, a Georgia-based apparel manufacturer, worked with smugglers using cargo vans to bring illegal immigrants from Mexico. The report says company officials falsified immigration forms to keep these migrants working.

Here in Seattle, where numerous Asian communities thrive, the Chinese were as appalled as anyone recently at the descriptions of the dark, fetid containers in which immigrants dared to travel. But to the Chinese, it was not a freak event. It was the latest chapter in a history that dates to the transcontinental railroad and is interwoven with decades of prejudice and racism.

As the container-smuggling story unfolded, a columnist for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer reported that her voice mail was choked with phone calls - and that half of these were from people who blamed most of America's ills on Chinese newcomers.

"These people from Asia don't even try to learn English," ranted one caller. "They just come here for the almighty dollar with no education and take jobs from the real Americans who need the work."

Every generation of America's Chinese has heard such sentiments. Perhaps no ethnic group has faced such incessant congressional animosity as the Chinese, and decades of federal exclusion laws have created a multigenerational mistrust, shaping the collective personality of the Chinese in America.

At the beginning of Chinese immigration, however, the Chinese came and were welcome. They proved themselves tireless workers in the gold fields, and their stamina and bravery at laying railroad track and blasting away the Rocky Mountains are well-documented.

The Chinese had come seeking gum shan - the Central Pacific Railroad even sent agents through China with pamphlets promising "more money than you can ever spend, more food than you can ever eat" in America, notes Kan Liang, a history professor at Seattle University.

US turns against the Chinese

In the economic downturn after the Civil War, though, organizations such as the Knights of Labor railed against the Chinese. Once praised for their industry and honesty, the Chinese were blamed for the recession and labeled clannish, deceitful, and servile coolies.

In 1882, Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, which forbade all Chinese laborers from entering America, and for the next 61 years, 14 different exclusion acts laid down a federal barrier made only for the Chinese. One prohibited women from immigrating. Another nullified all the visas held by Chinese who had temporarily returned to China, preventing their return.

"Prior to 1965, probably over 90 percent of the Chinese population came here illegally - including my family - because of the Chinese Exclusion Act," says Ron Chew, a Chinese-American in Seattle.

In 1965, immigration quotas for Chinese were equalized with those of other nations, which meant that separated families could finally be united without breaking any laws. By then, though, the earlier need for deception helped determine the public comportment of Chinese-Americans, says Mr. Chew.

"There's always been this stereotype that the Chinese are kind of sneaky. That they're secretive," Chew says. "But if you actually look at the history, you'll know why that behavior occurred."

For some Chinese, coming to America meant fabricating names and family ties, and that has led to an obscured past.

"When I had my first child, I said, 'I don't have any history to pass on to him,' " says Felicia Lowe, a Chinese-American filmmaker in San Francisco. "My father - he was a kind person. But what he had to do was give up a part of who he was.

"He couldn't share some of the happier moments of his life with us - and also some of the sad moments - because they were from another life," she says. "He wanted to protect us."

History repeated

The current spate of container smugglings, Chew says, is the "same system of coming here illegally, and being exploited. It's a really eerie echo of the past...."

For most of the stowaways who recently arrived in containers, even the best scenarios are grim. "The Chinese being smuggled - most of them are not going to be able to substantiate a claim for asylum," says Bill Strassberger, an INS spokesman. "If they do make it here and if they get released from custody, there's a good chance that they'll disappear. But they'll disappear into the sweatshop life."

Tam operates a noodle-manufacturing company across from the INS detention facility on the edge of Seattle's Chinatown. Pondering the future of the stowaways who spent three weeks in a stuffy container, he offers a cautionary word.

"If I go back to China and I tell them, 'In the United States it's tough; you have to work hard,' they don't believe it," he says. "We should ... let them know that not everywhere in America is Mountain of Gold."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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