Patrick Radden Keefe’s The Snakehead is a sprawling chronicle that examines the complex route taken by Chinese entering the United States illegally as clients of the professional human smugglers known among the Chinese as “snakeheads.” Keefe distinguishes between human “smuggling”in which people willingly pay for transportation to a foreign country and for documentation that will allow them to live there independentlyand human “trafficking.” In the latter case, immigrants are frequently deceived and forced into slave labor once they reach their destinations.
The centerpiece of Keefe’s story is the Golden Venture, a freight boat that ran aground off the Rockaway peninsula near Queens, New York, on June 6, 1993. The seventeen-thousand-mile, four-month journey of the Golden Venture was simply the last leg of a long odyssey for its 296 Fujianese passengers, who had endured squalid conditions on the boat. Some had hiked overland for days in Thailand and endured long waits in Singapore and Mombasa when the ship stopped to take on more passengers or to wait for further arrangements to be made. Most Chinese immigrants to the United States during the 1990’s came from Fujian Province, and Keefe notes that increased prosperity in Fujian, rather than creating a general sense of opportunity, may have driven some less fortunate Fujianese to seek better economic opportunities elsewhere.
When the Golden Venture arrived in U.S. waters, no one appeared as previously arranged to meet it and take its passengers ashore. Snakeheads on board the ship mutinied and deliberately ran the ship aground. Most of the Chinese passengerswho had paid (or promised) up to thirty thousand dollars to snakeheads for their passage to the United Statesfeared that the boat would sink and jumped into the freezing water. Ten passengers either drowned or died of heart attacks while attempting to swim to shore. The remaining survivors were taken into custody by the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS). Few American officials could understand or speak the dialect peculiar to the Fujianese; even so, many Golden Venture passengers were able to make clear in the first hours after the incident that they were asking for political asylum.
Keefe points out that snakeheads typically advised their clients to request political asylum as soon as they arrived in the United States. After the Chinese government crushed the 1989 prodemocracy protests in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, Americans sympathized with the protesters, and Chinese immigrants claiming connections to the Tiananmen incident had a better chance of legally obtaining asylum. China’s one-child policy also played a role in applications for political asylum. To counter population growth, Chinese were legally prohibited from having more than one child, and many reported that they had been punished for having more than one child or had been subject to forced sterilization or abortions.
During George H. W. Bush’s presidency, U.S. immigration policy leaned toward sympathy with those who fled China to escape the government’s brutal birth-control laws. When large numbers of applicants for political asylum created a backlog at the INS and delays in processing illegal immigrants, these immigrants were given temporary documents allowing them to seek employment and were released pending their hearings. They often disappeared before their scheduled court appearances.
The Golden Venture ran aground in the early months of the Bill Clinton administration, during a shift in the official position toward illegal immigrants. It was more difficult for the ship’s passengers to obtain political asylum on the basis of China’s one-child policy or political oppression tied to the 1989 Tiananmen protests. Furthermore, the INS had realized that undocumented Chinese immigrants frequently disappeared rather than returning for their asylum hearings. Golden Venture passengers were therefore not released but detained. Many were sent to a county prison in York, Pennsylvania. It appeared that the INS hoped to place the Chinese...
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