Perhaps the only difference between Sui-Ming Tam and 300 Chinese
stowaways - who last year promised smugglers as much as $50,000
apiece to pack them off to America in shipping containers - is time.
When Mr. Tam came over more than a decade ago, it took him four
attempts, and he had to hide in the mountains for 13 days, then swim
across a bay thick with sharks to Hong Kong. After that, it took
five more years to find someone in the United States who would
sponsor him - as little more than an indentured servant.
"I have to work for the people two years, pay them $400 a month,"
says Tam, a US citizen.
Today, the lure of America as gum shan - a mountain of gold - is
as strong as it was then. And not just for the Chinese. As US
officials ferret out traditional immigration routes, would-be
citizens from all parts of the globe are increasingly willing to go
to extreme lengths to cross the nation's borders.
More broadly, their desperation is fueling a multibillion-dollar-
a-year worldwide smuggling enterprise that changes tactics as
quickly as the US can adapt to them. But in addition, Tam's story -
like those of the stowaways - offers a window into the forces that
impel people to leave their homelands, as well as the challenges
immigrants face in an often-unwelcoming country.
Smuggling's many forms
Besides the container-smuggling operations and mundane, if
massive, illegal border crossings, a 1999 Immigration and
Naturalization Service report reveals an array of smuggling schemes:
*In the "most complex alien-smuggling ring" the INS has "ever
encountered," 24 smugglers were arrested in the Bahamas, Central
America, the Dominican Republic, and the US for bringing in as many
as 300 Indian nationals a month. Each illegal immigrant paid more
than $20,000, and the INS estimates that more than 10,000 people
entered the country during a three-year period. Gross profit to the
smugglers: more than $200 million.
*Between 1997 and 1999, a criminal syndicate spanning five
continents and including members of the St. Regis Mohawk Indian
nation smuggled as many as 150 Chinese a month at Akwesasne, a
reservation that straddles the US-Canada border.
*Atlantic Finishing, a Georgia-based apparel manufacturer, worked
with smugglers using cargo vans to bring illegal immigrants from
Mexico. The report says company officials falsified immigration
forms to keep these migrants working.
Here in Seattle, where numerous Asian communities thrive, the
Chinese were as appalled as anyone recently at the descriptions of
the dark, fetid containers in which immigrants dared to travel. But
to the Chinese, it was not a freak event. It was the latest chapter
in a history that dates to the transcontinental railroad and is
interwoven with decades of prejudice and racism.
As the container-smuggling story unfolded, a columnist for the
Seattle Post-Intelligencer reported that her voice mail was choked
with phone calls - and that half of these were from people who
blamed most of America's ills on Chinese newcomers.
"These people from Asia don't even try to learn English," ranted
one caller. "They just come here for the almighty dollar with no
education and take jobs from the real Americans who need the work."
Every generation of America's Chinese has heard such sentiments.
Perhaps no ethnic group has faced such incessant congressional
animosity as the Chinese, and decades of federal exclusion laws have
created a multigenerational mistrust, shaping the collective
personality of the Chinese in America.
At the beginning of Chinese immigration, however, the Chinese
came and were welcome. …