Chinese Immigrants Chase Opportunity in America

New York's Chinatown

hide captionSigns in English and Chinese dominate the streets in New York's Chinatown. In the eastern part of Manhattan's Chinatown, Fujianese have created a microcosm of Fujian Province with noodle joints, restaurant supply shops and a fish ball factory.

Chris Hondros/Getty Images

A Meandering Route

Read about how Chinese from the Fujian Province make it to America, from securing a fake passport to traveling through several countries.

Newly Built, Empty Homes in the Fujian province

hide captionThis newly built home stands in the Fujian province. Many newly built homes are empty because the owners live in America.

Irene Jay Liu, for NPR

Over the past two decades, illegal immigrants from the Fujian Province of China have flooded into New York City's Chinatown.

Entire blocks of the city have become a microcosm of Fujianese culture.

Hundreds of thousands of Fujianese have been voluntarily smuggled into the United States by people known, in Chinese, as snakeheads. They operate a lucrative, illegal and sometimes dangerous international smuggling network.

Following the Jobs in America

In the shadow of the Manhattan Bridge, buses are lined up two and three deep along the street, some with signs to Boston and Philadelphia and Washington. Some of the bus signs are much more general, indicating Ohio, Kentucky and Tennessee.

These buses cater to the Fujianese immigrants who ride them to jobs all over the United States.

Before boarding the buses, migrant workers pick up snacks, like sticks of grilled lamb, chicken hearts and fruit, being sold by sidewalk vendors.

These immigrants live an itinerant life, pursuing jobs in every corner of America. Mr. Chen, who asked that only his last name be used, is a 29-year-old immigrant from Fujian. He was smuggled to the United States nine years ago and has lived all over the country, moving from one job to the next.

"I'm never certain about work. Sometimes I work a year, sometimes a few days, sometimes one day, sometimes half a day," Chen says. "I've been to Tennessee, Minnesota, Texas, Florida, upstate New York and also around New York City."

Chen is about to take a job in a Chinese restaurant in upstate New York. He says that he doesn't know exactly where he is headed, but that his boss will meet him at the bus stop when he arrives.

In the eastern part of Manhattan's Chinatown, Fujianese have created a microcosm of Fujian Province. They speak in the Fujianese dialect, and the streets are lined with noodle joints, restaurant supply shops and even a fish ball factory that makes the Fujianese staple.

Making Money and Sending Money Home

On every block, there are employment agencies.

Young men crowd inside the narrow storefronts. Tiny, paper squares of job listings checker a Plexiglas wall and behind the wall employment agents field calls from all over the country.

Chen found his new job through such an employment agency. He says that he'll work as a chef for his next job, making around $2,700 a month or about $32,000 a year.

The boss provides free housing and he eats at the restaurant, which means that he can pocket almost all of the money he earns.

The hours are long and life isn't easy. But by coming to America, the Fujianese can send money to their relatives and put their wealth on display in their hometowns in China.

New Homes in a Ghost Town

One village in Fujian Province, Ho Yu Xiang, is feeling the effects of the smuggling trade. It is practically a ghost town.

The streets are deserted and the only sound is the hammering and buzzing of construction. New houses are springing up in this village.

A construction worker says that all the people went to America. Old people live in this village, but most of the young people have gone abroad. The houses, built by those who live abroad, are completely empty.

There are villages like this one all over Fujian Province. There's even one called the Living Widow's Village because almost all the men have left to work abroad. But these brand new, empty houses are evidence of the wealth that the Chinese in the United States have sent back to this area.

Coming to America Through Snakeheads

Workers in the United States can take home four to five times more than they can in China. But Fujian Province is not especially poor by Chinese standards.

In fact, Fujian has become a destination for workers from other parts of China. Many of the construction workers and maids are from the Sichuan Province in Western China.

The influx of money from the United States has also enabled successive waves of human smuggling. Would-be immigrants borrow money from friends, family and neighbors to pay smugglers, known in Chinese as se tao, or snakeheads.

The snakeheads arrange entry into America and they are resourceful, according to Andy Yu, a smuggling expert at the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Bureau in Washington.

"As we apply pressure in one area, they might vary by using different routes and methods," Yu says. "They adapt as quickly as we can adapt."

Arranging a Fake Marriage

A fake marriage broker in New York, who asked not to be identified, talks about how he's always adapting.

"If you're in this business, you're always aware of the different ways of doing things," the marriage broker says.

The most popular method to get into the United States is fake marriage, a method that appears legitimate but is actually illegal. The broker got into the business as a "fake spouse."

When he started, he was out of a job and looking for a way to make money. A friend's cousin was a broker, and he explained the whole fake marriage process, which included going to China — something that sounded like a vacation to him.

"And it sounded alright, I mean, hey, I can go to China," the broker says. "So after I went through every step, I figure, hey, this isn't that bad. And that's when I started brokering."

He says the cost of a fake marriage usually runs about $75,000 and that the money is paid in installments. U.S. citizens who serve as a fake spouse can make up to $65,000, depending on how likely they are to pass U.S. and Chinese government scrutiny, which consist of many steps.

Authorities, most of the time, ask for three years of taxes. Other signs that increase the likelihood of passing is if the prospective fake spouse speaks Fujianese and has traveled to China.

Sealing the Deal

The U.S. broker's job is to find the fake spouses and send them to China, often in groups of three or four. Once there, another broker arranges the match-ups, the paperwork and most importantly, the wedding banquet.

The groups of people getting married rotate through the marriage hall. With each new marriage, the names on the wall change. And pictures from the marriage show lots of people in the background.

"They wanna see background people that actually celebrating your wedding," the broker says. "'Cause in China, a wedding is a big deal."

After the pictures are taken and the cake is eaten, the fake spouses return to the United States. Once the paperwork and the smuggling payments go through, the happy fake couples reunite in the United States.

They stay married for a couple of years, and then go on their separate ways, joining the estimated 20,000 to 30,000 Chinese who enter illegally each year.

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