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Tougher measures for defanging snakeheads
By Raymond Zhou (China Daily)
Updated: 2004-04-12 23:38

Repeated tragedies involving illegal Chinese migrants should be enough to prevent any sensible person from following their examples. Yet the opposite seems to be happening. What is then the driving forces behind this phenomenon?

Border policemen stationed at Shanghai Pudong Airport exchange information on how to identify fake passports. [newsphoto/file]

On February 5, 20 cockle pickers were swept away by a sudden tide on Morecambe Bay, Great Britain. Sixteen others escaped ashore.

In June 2000, 58 people were suffocated in a tomato truck that arrived at the British port of Dover from the Netherlands.

In 1993, a freighter carrying 300 stowaways ran aground off New York. Ten perished trying to swim ashore.

All these incidents involved illegal migrants from China, specifically from East China's Fujian Province. The headline-grabbing stories shocked the world for the crimes committed by human-smuggling "snakeheads" and at the same time focused the international spotlight on illegal immigration from China.

From October 10 to March 10, the Ministry of Public Security conducted a special operation targeting border crimes.

According to statistics released by the ministry, police have arrested 5,286 stowaways and 444 snakeheads during the operation.

** Motives

From the wave of illegal immigration that has lasted over a decade, one might conclude there has been massive famine or even war where they came from. Most North Americans simply assume these people are fleeing from dire poverty. This mentality has made a subtle impact on US and Canadian immigration policies.

The truth is much more complicated. Many of those interviewed by China Daily cited peer pressure as the primary reason for their willingness to risk their lives and put up so much money to "get on that boat." This is confirmed by Li Hongjie, president of the Research Institute of Overseas Chinese with Fujian Academy of Social Sciences.

"So many of their fellow villagers are leaving or have already left that they fear they themselves may look like a laggard if they don't join them," says Li, who has researched illegal migration from Fujian for many years. "Besides, available news of those who have left all give the rosy side of the story -- that they have got rich so fast."

This brings up the second factor: peer envy. Li points out that Fujian people have a long tradition of venturing overseas and seeking better development. And at the same time they are determined to project a facade of prosperity.

Most immigrants from Fujian end up in garment factories and restaurants after landing in North America, Li says. Yet the new arrivals who are sweating it out in restaurant kitchens and live in cramped slum apartments steadfastly refuse to talk about it lest their stories reach their loved ones back home. Their attitudes only change once they acquire a car or house.

The most fundamental factor, as most immigration researchers would agree, is economic. People will gravitate to more lucrative jobs, and the higher the pay the more they are willing to risk.

Fujian is by no means a backwater; in fact it is one of China's more prosperous regions, yet the amount of income a hard labourer can pull in is usually a fraction of what a similar worker earns in a Western nation.

Besides, even if Fujian people might not be the most considerate parents in China, they will take the risk "for the benefit of their children," as Li put it, "so they can benefit from the (foreign) education system ."

** Wild claims

However, they cannot possibly legally obtain work in the US, which grants work visas only to top talent in business, arts or technology. The situation in Canada is similar, if not as strict. The only door left open is political asylum. Since claims of what happened in China cannot be independently verified, the applicants can make whatever claims that they believe will convince the immigration authorities. Though they need to provide evidence, it can be easily purchased from many "immigration consultants."

Yet many American lawyers agree most of these claims are exaggerated. "People tend to take advantage of the system," says Charles Foster, a seasoned immigration lawyer and adviser to US President George Bush on immigration laws, adding that an immigration judge usually knows very little about China and has to rely on the government attorney or the client attorney for information. "They tend to focus on the issue in a very narrow context," Foster explains.

Whether an applicant lies to the judge is an ethical question for himself, not the lawyer, argues Jerry Zhang, a Texas-based attorney and partner at Zhang & Associates.

"This particular immigration policy may have been designed to help those who suffer persecution in their own land, but in reality it is pushing people onto the road of fabrication and deceit. If you state your real purpose, there is no way you can get your legal status here," contends Ho Yuefu, a Boston-based scholar.

It is not that the US Government is oblivious towards human tragedies caused by snakehead smuggling -- the perilous trips and the subsequent quasi-slave labours -- but they are looking everywhere for sources of the evil except their own policy. They simply refuse to see the clearest cause-and-effect link, adds Ho.

** Remedy

"Illegal undocumented immigration is a serious problem," says Charles Foster, "but there is zero focus on the Chinese by the US Government."

For one thing, the Chinese portion of illegal migrants represents at most 5 per cent of the overall estimated number in the United States, according to Foster.

The post-911 focus is on fighting terrorism, but its fallout may affect illegal immigration.

Both Zhang and Foster believe that increased border checks, as the Ministry of Public Security's special operation conducted, will make it more difficult for stowaways to sneak in and out. And stricter enforcement in the immigration review process on the US side will also mean that overstays cannot be easily converted to legal stays and legal employment. For example, this year's quota for H1B visas, granted to high-tech workers from other countries, was filled in mid-February, and given the current job market the US Congress will not raise the quota of 65,000 slots.

Immigration judges are also learning that claims of political adversity may be groundless -- but they are usually slow on the learning curve, thus leaving room for one particular alibi to take hold before being abruptly snubbed.

"The claim of Falungong won't fly anymore," says Alex Wang, a Texas computer engineer who knows many applicants. "It's out of fashion with the immigration judge."

The Chinese Government and police have all along adhered to the stance of firmly cracking down on illegal immigration, says Chen Weiming, director of the frontier bureau with the Ministry of Public Security.

However, because of its huge profit and the uneven economic development situations in different countries, the problem could not be wholly curbed, acknowledges Chen.

Li Hongjie points out that given China's surplus labourers and developed countries' need for low-cost labour, the long-term solution for illegal migrants lies in better conduits for international labour resources.

Jerry Zhang suggests that the Chinese Government should adopt a policy to encourage legal migrants or overseas work programmes. "The traditional Chinese notion of keeping all your kids at home is out of touch with the current world labour market," says Jerry Zhang.

The misery of illegal migrants in the hands of demonic snakeheads or employers can only be stopped when nations co-operate to set up a legal market for transnational labour flow and management of international migrant workers is enhanced, maintains Wang Shengjin, vice-president and professor of population studies at Northeast China's Jilin University.

"In fact, the number of stowaways in Fujian has dropped significantly in recent years as legal channels to go abroad for family reunion or employment are more easily accessed," Li Hongjie says.

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