FOR the last two years and through a network that amounts to slave trade, hundreds of people from the rural parts of China's Fujian Province have been enticed by promises of quick and easy wealth to enter the United States illegally. The pace has quickened: In 1991, the US Coast Guard intercepted 20 illegal immigrants, another 613 last year, and more than 1,600 since January.
West Coast cities have dominated as ports of entry. But the East Coast, from New Bedford, Mass., to Jacksonville, Fla., has seen activity as well. The most recent incident involved the grounding June 6 of a freighter off the borough of Queens in New York. The vessel's human cargo of some 300 Chinese apparently was bound for Massachusetts. Eight died trying to swim ashore. The captain and 11 crew members have been charged with conspiracy to commit alien-smuggling.
People who make the trip endure foul shipboard conditions. Most are forced to work off the price of transit - as high as $30,000 - by working long hours under highly exploitative conditions. Some have been kidnapped or beaten by members of the criminal organizations that brought them after the newcomers failed to make payments. Others are forced to work as gang enforcers or drug runners. Many say they regret their decision to leave China but add that criminal elements back home would kill them if they re turned without repaying the fees.
The smuggling is well organized, criminally based, involves billions of dollars, and exploits well-meant openings in US immigration laws that made it easier for Chinese dissidents to enter the US after the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989. Also, Washington correctly identified China's forced-sterilization program for population control as a human rights violation, thus as grounds for asylum in the US.
The would-be immigrants deserve more compassion than censure. Despite sometimes justified doubts about their asylum requests, these people are entitled to and should receive the due-process rights offered under US immigration laws..
The Immigration and Naturalization Service, which handles the cases, also needs help: It has 260,000 asylum applications pending; it can process only 20,000 to 30,000 a year. Congress must match liberalized asylum provisions with the increased resources to handle them.