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The Snakehead

Journalist Patrick Radden Keefe follows the story of the boss of a human smuggling ring.

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Packaged as a book about global organized crime, Keefe’s story is as much a narrative of American politics. At every turn, Sister Ping’s work succeeds, or is thwarted, by shifting political winds that have very little to do with her own business acumen. The Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989 paves the political path to a green card for any Chinese who arrived prior to 1981, no matter how they got here. (It doesn’t hurt Sister Ping that the cutoff date spawned a bull market in fake backdated documents. As her past customers began to send for their loved ones through her channels, Sister Ping was happy to provide the falsified documents as well.) Five years later, Sister Ping is arrested for the first time but finagles a light sentence; at the time, human smuggling wasn’t the FBI’s top priority.

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That changed a decade later, with the Golden Venture debacle. After delays in Thailand and Kenya, the would-be immigrants landed on American soil at absolutely the wrong time: The newly installed President Clinton hadn’t named an immigration head, and the hawks and doves of asylum policy were fighting over whether China’s political repressions, especially the one-child policy, counted as persecution. Every case – and its consequences – became inordinately subjective. Some passengers were permitted to stay; others were deported. Of those, some were beaten and tortured. And others borrowed another $30,000 and made the journey again, this time successfully. (One is caught again, deboarding a boat aptly named the Oops II.)

Ultimately, Keefe’s story is about seedy characters who control the crime rings, from the hardened killers who lead Chinatown’s gangs to the hard-nosed smugglers who brought them there. Keefe’s greatest strength is hiding how he feels about these people, reporting on each of them with an attuned honesty that reveals itself not in the moral judgments of the author, but in the deftly observed detail of the reporter. When Sister Ping’s husband hears her sentence – 35 years spread across several criminal charges – Keefe writes, “He added up the numbers on a little piece of paper on his knee.” In the cramped quarters of the safe houses the newly smuggled share with gang members, Keefe notices, “The bathroom ... might have eighteen different toothbrushes in it, accommodating a revolving door of regulars and passers-through.”

He crosses that line, however, in a disappointing final chapter. He clears the air about his feelings on Sister Ping, Ah Kay and the other smugglers, immigration policy, and American politics as he sums up the lessons we’re supposed to learn from this story. He also undermines a fascinating cultural dissonance he’s spent book building: She may be a criminal in America, but Sister Ping is a hero to the many Fujianese who escaped dead-end lives of factory work for America, where their children, at least, can move up the socioeconomic ladder to lives unimaginable in the China their parents left.

But the rest of the book is too good not to forgive him. In this single tale about a global criminal, Keefe finds a story of quintessentially American hope.

Jina Moore is a freelance writer in New York.

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