When 22 Chinese nationals let themselves out of a cramped and smelly cargo container at the Port of Seattle last week, it ended their dangerous and costly two-week trip from Shanghai. But after a few minutes of freedom and fresh air, they were apprehended and are likely to be deported.
There was no indication that the 18 men and four women had terrorist ties, officials say. But they had made it to a major downtown area at a time of rising concern about port vulnerability. Some wonder just how easy it would have been to load that 40-foot metal box aboard the MV Rotterdam, a vessel of China Shipping Line, with a weapon of mass destruction.
The episode highlights two things: growing and in some ways uncontrolled emigration to the United States from China; and the post-9/11 effort by officials and lawmakers to tighten security at American ports.
"If this was a chemical weapon exploding in Seattle, the plume could contaminate the rail system, Interstate 5, and SeaTac Airport, not to mention the entire downtown business and residential district," Sen. Patty Murray (D) of Washington, who represents America's most trade- dependent state, said in a statement.
Coincidentally, just hours after the 1 a.m. discovery and arrest at Terminal 18 on Seattle's Harbor Island on April 5, the Senate was hearing from experts on the subject. Michael Jackson, deputy secretary of Homeland Security, pointed to the "layered system of systems" designed to scrutinize cargo headed for US ports, in some cases before it crosses the ocean. This includes examination of passenger lists and cargo manifests, and flagging anomalies, which prompts special inspection.
"At home, our goal is to have 100 percent inspection of all containers that are transported by truck or rail from a US port into the interior of our country," Mr. Jackson told the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs. "Abroad, our goal is to increase materially the number of containers inspected by radiation-detection tools and by nonintrusive inspections, including large-scale X-ray devices."
While the US government now spends nearly $3 billion a year on maritime security, much more needs to be done, according to those dealing with the 21,000 cargo containers entering US ports every day. The number of containers being physically inspected has doubled in recent years, but that's still only about 6 percent of the total.
"It has been almost five years since the attacks of 9/11, and I must say that I still do not sleep well knowing all the vulnerabilities in our port security system," Port of Seattle CEO Mic Dinsmore told senators. "While some progress has been made, it is not enough. The rate at which containers are screened is abysmal, and the controls we have for allowing persons to get onto our marine terminals are almost embarrassing."
In the recent Seattle case, the container holding its illicit human cargo had been marked for inspection because it was found to be suspiciously light. But the people cooped up inside had broken out, and they might well have slipped over the fence if they hadn't been discovered by an unarmed security guard and a truck driver.
Their stories have yet to be told, but they most likely paid about $50,000 each to smugglers known in China as "snakeheads."
In a report for the US Justice Department, Sheldon Zhang of San Diego State University and Ko-lin Chin of Rutgers University noted that smugglers have been able to develop extensive global networks and transport Chinese nationals around the world, with the US as the most sought-after destination. "At any given time," they wrote, "thirty thousand Chinese are stashed away in safe houses around the world, waiting for entry."
The number of Chinese wanting to enter the US has gone up steadily since diplomatic relations with China were established in 1978. That trend grew with the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989, and then the transition to a state- controlled market economy.
"Emigration from China has been very strong, and if anything it's accelerated since the 1980s," says C.N. Le, who chairs the Asian and Asian American Studies Program at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst.
"Here in the US, not only are there a lot of economic opportunities, but there is an entire network and structure of other Chinese who have emigrated before them," says Dr. Le. "In numbers comes strength." After Hispanics, Chinese are the second-largest ethnic minority in the US - many of them from the coastal provinces of Fujian, Zhejiang, and Guangdong.
US and Chinese officials have worked together to stem human smuggling. In US district court in New York last month, Cheng Chui Ping - known as "the Mother of All Snakeheads" - was sentenced to 35 years in prison for leading an international immigrant-smuggling ring that had brought as many as 3,000 illegals from China into the US, collecting more than $40 million in the process.
US and Chinese officials are working out the details of an agreement to return some 39,000 Chinese nationals now in the US illegally.
Meanwhile, proposals in the US House and Senate would increase security for about 8,500 foreign vessels that together make more than 55,000 US port calls every year. These range from strategic port security planning by the Department of Homeland Security to such specifics as mechanical seals on containers and secure identification for port workers.
"America's cargo ports, large and small, are on the front lines of the war against terrorism," Sen. Susan Collins (R) of Maine, who chairs the Committee on Homeland Security, said in a statement.