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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Among the millions of immigrants who have come to the United States illegally, many are Chinese. The smuggling network that brings them here is well-organized, lucrative, and sometimes dangerous.

Today, we trace that network from Manhattan to the Chinese province of Fujian; hundreds of thousands of Fujianese have been voluntarily smuggled into the U.S. during the past two decades. And now Irene Jay Liu takes us into that underworld of human smuggling.

(Soundbite of street)

IRENE JAY LIU: 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 D.C. And some much more general - Ohio, Kentucky and Tennessee.

(Soundbite of bus engine)

LIU: These buses cater to the Fujianese immigrants who ride them to jobs all over the U.S.

Before boarding the buses, migrant workers pick up snacks like fruits and sticks of grilled lamb and chicken hearts being sold by sidewalk vendors. These immigrants live an itinerant life, pursuing jobs wherever they are available.

Mr. Chen, who asked that only his last name be used, is a 29-year-old immigrant from Fujian. He was smuggled to the U.S. nine years ago.

Mr. CHEN (Chinese Immigrant): (Through translator) I'm never certain about work. Sometimes I work a year, sometimes a few days, sometimes one day, sometimes half a day. I've been to Tennessee, Minnesota, Texas, Florida, upstate New York, and also around New York City.

LIU: 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 new boss will meet him at the bus stop when he arrives.

Here 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.

On every block there are employment agencies.

(Soundbite of phone ringing)

LIU: Young men crowd inside the narrow storefronts. And behind a Plexiglas wall covered in tiny squares of paper listing jobs, employment agents field calls from all over the country.

Chen found his new job through an employment agency like this one. He says that he'll be making around $2,700 a month, $32,000 a year, working as a chef in his next job. The boss provides free housing, and Chen 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 the Fujianese come to the U.S. so they can send money to their relatives and put their wealth on display in their hometowns in China.

(Soundbite of construction)

LIU: This village in Fujian Province is practically a ghost town. It's called Ho Yu Xiang. The streets are deserted and the only sound is the hammering and buzzing of construction. New houses are springing up in this village. The ground crunches with sand and construction debris.

I ask a construction worker why there are so few people in the village.

Unidentified Man #1 (Construction Worker): (Through translator) They all went to America. Most of these houses are completely empty. They built them but no one lives in them. It is mostly old people who live here. All the young people have gone abroad.

LIU: 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. These brand new empty houses are evidence of the wealth that the Chinese in the U.S. have sent back to this area.

Workers in America 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. All of the construction workers and maids I spoke with were from the Sichuan Province in Western China.

The influx of money from America 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, to arrange entry into the U.S.

The snakeheads are resourceful, according to Andy Yu of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Bureau in Washington, D.C.

Mr. ANDY YU (U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Bureau): As we apply pressure in one area, they might vary by using different routes and methods. They adapt as quickly as we can adapt to their changes as well.

LIU: This smuggler concurs.

Unidentified Man #2 (Smuggler): If you're in this business, you're always aware of, you know, the different ways of doing things.

LIU: This man has smuggled Chinese into the U.S. using methods that appear legitimate but are actually illegal.

The most popular method is fake marriage. This man, who lives in New York and asked not to be identified, says that he first got into the business as a fake spouse himself.

Unidentified Man #3: At that time I was kind of out of a job and my friend's cousin, he's a broker. And one day we just sat around talking about it and I was like, oh damn, I'm so broke, I need a job. And he said, hey, I got this thing, you know, he just broke down the whole thing. And it sounded all right. I mean, hey, I can go to China. I speak the language. So I'm like, all right, let's go. We wind up - five of us all went together. So it was like, hey man, take it as a vacation. So after I went through every single step, this is not that bad. Then I started brokering.

LIU: 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 fake spouses, can make up to $65,000 each, depending on how likely they are to pass U.S. and Chinese government scrutiny.

Unidentified Man #3: First of all, you got definitely be a citizen. And most of the time they will ask you for three years of taxes. Also, if you speak the language it's better, because sometimes, you know, paperworks don't look right they make you do interview together. And if you can't even communicate, you know, guarantee you're not going to pass.

You've been into that country before, you actually filed in the paperwork, that also looks better. You could say that, you know, you've been there before and you guys met the last time you were there.

LIU: 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.

Unidentified Man #3: So let's say you go back with three people that's doing it; you're basically having one banquet for three people. And they just change the names on the wall. Same picture with the same people. But then in background, you'd still see a lot of people; that's what they want to see. They want to see background people that actually are celebrating your wedding, because in China wedding is a big deal.

LIU: After the pictures are taken and the cake is eaten, the fake spouses return to the U.S. Once the paperwork and the smuggling payments go through, the happy fake couples reunite in America.

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

For NPR News, I'm Irene Jay Liu.

MONTAGNE: Tomorrow, we travel back to China and then on to Thailand and Belize, following the smuggling routes used to bring Chinese immigrants into the U.S.

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