Smuggled Chinese Travel Circuitously to the U.S.

Bangkok’s Kao Sarn Road

On Bangkok's Kao Sarn Road, fake driver's licenses, press cards and degrees are sold alongside fake designer sneakers. Selling of fake passports isn't out in the open, but with the right connections, you can figure out where to find them. Irene Jay Liu, for NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Irene Jay Liu, for NPR

Following the Money

Read about how human smuggling has changed China's Fujian Province and New York's Chinatown.

Rio Hondo River, on the Belize-Mexico border

A canoe sits on the Rio Hondo River, which runs between Mexico and Belize. Villagers in a border town say goods and people – including many Chinese hoping to make it to America — are smuggled into Mexico from Belize. Irene Jay Liu, for NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Irene Jay Liu, for NPR

Since the late 1980s, hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants from China's Fujian province have been smuggled into the United States.

The business of human-smuggling has evolved as security has tightened in the U.S. And the smugglers, known as "snakeheads" by Chinese, have become more sophisticated.

In the summer of 1993, a rusty steamer ran aground off New York City. Nearly 300 passengers plunged into the chilly waters, desperate to touch American soil. Ten would die in the water, within sight of shore.

The boat was called the Golden Venture, and its passengers were immigrants smuggled from Fujian.

The capsize of the Golden Venture became national news. It was the first time many people had heard of people being smuggled from China. The incident was a source of embarrassment for both the Chinese and U.S. governments.

Changes in the Human-Smuggling Business

Fourteen years later, the flow of Fujianese to America continues, but the business of human smuggling has changed significantly. When the smuggling began two decades ago, the cost of coming to the United States was around $15,000. Now, immigrants pay $60,000 to $80,000 to be brought to America.

In one village in Fujian, people gather in the communal area. Old men play cards in the corner; others drink tea and talk. There are very few women and no young people.

Villagers say smuggling is an open business here. One of them says everyone knows how to find a snakehead —but that you need to have the money to go.

People who can go are aided by family, friends and former neighbors who have already prospered in the United States. Sometimes people living abroad lend money to pay for the snakehead.

For the most part, human smuggling is no longer about packing hundreds of people into dangerous ships. Nowadays, smuggling involves airports and cars and crisscrossing the globe on scheduled flights. Snakeheads use methods that mimic legal means of entry.

Getting a Fake ID

Smuggling people through legal points of entry — instead of skirting them — requires fake documents. And Bangkok is one place to get phony papers.

In Thailand's capital, there is a closed-off street known as Kao Sarn Road. At night it lights up with bright signs advertising tattoo and massage parlors. The air smells of humidity, grilled meat, people and booze.

You can buy fake IDs, driver's licenses, press cards and even fake degrees. The people who sell these documents set up shop among racks of knock-off Puma T-shirts and fake Chuck Taylors. They sit on cheap, plastic lawn chairs behind card tables.

You won't find fake passports on these tables, but they're available if you have the connections and the cash. At the end of Kao Sarn Road, a restaurant owner and part-time stolen passport dealer says the documents are in demand. The man didn't want his name used.

"Most of them are foreigners. There's a hotel called Malaysia Hotel at Lumpini that has some people who make fake passports. It is the biggest source of fake passports in Thailand," he says. "At the hotel, they do everything for you."

The restaurant owner started dealing passports about 10 years ago. He is a middleman, buying passports and selling them to the next middleman. He doesn't know who ends up using the passports.

"It's not that every passport has the same price. For example, the U.S. passport is almost worthless because everything is very strict. It's the same with the U.K. passport," he says. "You cannot fake it. There is high demand for passports from Israel and Japan."

"People will use the same passport. They peel back the cover and switch the picture," the dealer says. "They change the name, the signature — like how they do it with fake student IDs."

Newer passports that use photos from digital cameras are made in Malaysia, he says.

Traveling Along the Smuggling Route

For the Chinese who are smuggled through Bangkok, the journey starts out legally. Many of them fly into Bangkok International Airport on legal tourist visas with their own Chinese passports — but these tourists never go home.

In Thailand they get fake documents and then move on to the next stop along the smuggling route.

Once they're on the road, the Chinese travel a meandering route — through Russia, Europe, Africa, Latin America and Canada — before finally reaching the United States.

Good smugglers — the expensive ones — run a full-service operation. They escort the immigrants each step of the way, providing food, lodging and transportation.

Working through local operators with local nicknames, snakeheads in China work with the "pig daddies" in Thailand who hand off their charges to "coyotes" in Latin America.

On the Belize-Mexico Border

With Mexico to the north, Belize has become a stopover for smugglers traveling by land from Latin America to the United States.

Residents of Douglas in Belize know their village is a popular spot to smuggle goods and people into Mexico. The village lies next to the Rio Hondo River, which divides the two countries.

Belize has a surprisingly large Chinese population, making up more than 3 percent of the country's total population of 300,000. Those familiar with the trade say the smugglers are local Chinese-Belizean businesspeople.

Two men with bikes and a gaggle of kids show up when they realize someone is at the banks of the Rio Hondo. The river's edge is lined with trees and sugarcane. The water is still. Tied to the embankment are little canoes that locals say are used to shuttle contraband between Belize and Mexico.

The sun sets, and the light quickly slips into darkness. One of the men, in a white T-shirt and jeans, initially doesn't seem surprised by the visitor. But after some questioning, he becomes suspicious and says the canoes are used for fishing.

Later that night, one of the men is still out by the water. He leans on his bike as if waiting for something or someone.

Reaching America

After the Chinese cross into Mexico, they travel north and are smuggled across the border into America. Every week, 50 to 100 Chinese nationals are caught trying to cross the U.S.-Mexican border.

Those who make it to the United States are taken to a safe house and handed cell phones. They call home to say they've arrived safely. The snakeheads immediately go to the relatives' homes either in China or the United States to collect payment.

Once they're released by the snakeheads, these new immigrants fan out across the country, boarding Chinatown buses that take them to every corner of the U.S.

They go to jobs offered by Chinese immigrants who've already made it. They seek prosperity — the same prosperity that others who have traveled a similar path before them have found.

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