Chinese Seek Illegal Entry To US on Well-Worn Paths

Recent seizures of boatloads of immigrants highlight smugglers' use of Mexican and Central American routes

THREE boatloads of Chinese citizens captured in recent weeks trying to sneak into the United States are the failed fruits of several Asian smuggling rings, US and Mexican immigration officials say.

"They were bringing them in through Mexico and Central America by plane," Verne Jervis, a spokesman for the US Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) says.

"Now, they've turned to boats. We've caught roughly 12 ships with 1,500 people in the last two years," Mr. Jervis says. But he estimates only half of these illegal immigrants are being caught.

The recent apprehensions include:

* April 30 - Mexican officials, alerted by neighbors, found some 300 Chinese crammed into a "safe house" and an adjacent trailer in Ensenada, a town about 60 miles south of the US border.

* May 11 - a Honduran-registered ship returned to the port of La Ceiba, Honduras, with 236 illegal Chinese immigrants. The ship, "Mermaid 1" was captured by the US Coast Guard off the Florida coast on April 21.

* May 12 - the US Coast Guard towed a boat with 199 undocumented Chinese immigrants into San Diego Harbor.

But the tide has not yet turned on this immigrant flow.

"We have reports of more ships at sea, and ships being outfitted. It will continue," predicts Jervis, "until we find a way to stop it."

Authorities are primarily up against Chinese smuggling syndicates - based in the US - which are generating some $3 billion a year in revenues.

Many of the immigrants are coming from the poor Chinese province of Fujian. Most are looking for work and better lives in the US. They are charged $20,000 to $30,000 for safe passage to the US, say immigration officials. Those who cannot raise the money from relatives in the US must pay off their debts upon arrival, often working as indentured servants in US businesses run by crime syndicates.

Mexican officials say they have captured or seen several groups of Chinese near the US-Mexico border near Tijuana, using routes favored by Mexican illegal immigrants.

Last month, for the first time, five Mexicans were arrested for smuggling Chinese in, along with the 300 Chinese caught in Ensenada, on the Baja California coast of Mexico.

But the Baja coast is not the only route used. Taking advantage of routes well-worn by Central Americans seeking to enter the US without documentation, Guatemalan officials report a sharp rise in the number of Asians passing illegally through their territory. US officials say two ships full of Chinese citizens were picked up off the East coast of the US last year, too.

Immigration officials are attempting to discourage ships from smuggling human cargoes by aggressively prosecuting captains and crews when they are captured.

A meeting was held in Washington recently between several nations trying to develop a solution. "It's going to take international cooperation to stop this," Jervis from INS says.

US officials praise the cooperation they are getting from Mexico and the way Honduras has handled the case involving a Honduran-registered vessel.

The Chinese immigrants are being deported. On May 11, Honduran President Rafael Leonardo Callejas asked the national legislature to pass stricter laws and stiffen penalties for Honduran-registered ships trafficking in illegal immigrants.

But Jose Luis Perez, the Baja California state human rights prosecutor, is calling for further investigation. He suspects the smuggling network is linked to corrupt Mexican officials. "It is not possible to accept the idea that hundreds of Chinese can enter the state without the authorities knowing it," Mr. Perez says.

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