How Our Immigration Policy Spurred Human Smuggling

As immigration reform languishes in Washington and the country continues to dither about what to do to solve this decade's Mexican debacle, everyone involved—from policymakers to activists to the undocumented—would be wise to read Patrick Radden Keefe's The Snakehead: An Epic Tale of the Chinatown Underworld and the American Dream (Doubleday). Painstakingly reported and vividly told, the book is actually less about the American Dream than it is a primer on the scattered policies that came out of Washington, D.C., as globalization kicked into high gear. Despite America's status as a nation of immigrants, recent history makes clear that, well before the George W. Bush era, the country lacked a workable and humane way of dealing with the millions of people who are dying (some of them literally) to get into the country every year.

The Snakehead is first and foremost the story of human traffickers, or "snakeheads," like Sister Ping, a merciless mastermind of the smuggling trade, who made a fortune by establishing an underground bank to finance an intricate enterprise of transporting human beings from the Fujian province of China to the U.S. Ping oversaw her illicit financing system—in which she stockpiled cash on both sides of the globe and then issued lines of credit—from her home base in New York's Chinatown. She subcontracted the shipping, often on vessels that were barely seaworthy, to the countless opportunists who make the $20 billion global human-smuggling business possible.

In short, Ping was a gangster. In Chinatown, she forged alliances with hard-nosed thugs to back her operation. She did business with suitcases full of cash, sometimes as much as $400,000 at a time. In 1998, after one of her ships sank and 14 bodies were found dead in the water off the coast of Guatemala, she considered them a business expense and, in a move worthy of dark Mafia honor, she paid for their burials. Yet in this underworld, Keefe argues, something more was going on than Sopranos-style ethics: "In some ways Sister Ping's organization was less like the Mafia than it was like a multinational corporation that seeks an optimal economic and regulatory environment in which to do business." The general global disorder of the end of the Cold War provided exactly that environment.

And the book is equally a chronicle of failed policy. Reading The Snakehead, one is struck by the realization that the George H.W. Bush and Clinton administrations were on the wrong side of globalization, at least with regard to human smuggling. In the first half of the '90s, remittances helped push foreign direct capital investment into Fujian from $379 million to $4.1 billion—shocking numbers that mirror the success of Ping's smuggling business. Meanwhile, according to Keefe, "criminal sentences for human smuggling amounted to a slap on the wrist." After the Tiananmen Square massacre, Bush's asylum policy inadvertently opened the door to virtually anyone from China who wanted to come to the U.S. By one estimate, the snakehead trade in the early 1990s had grown to $3.2 billion a year.

Clinton's White House eventually doubled the budget of the Immigration and Naturalization Service and signed an immigration reform act in 1996, but much of the damage had already been done. As asylum cases piled up and snakeheads like Sister Ping grew their businesses, Keefe writes, "the INS was cash-strapped and plodding, hidebound and slavishly hierarchical . . . The agency was the exact opposite of the snakeheads . . . It was a domestic law-enforcement agency striving for relevance in a world of global migration flows." Globalization had a dark side, and the U.S. was slow to catch on.

In 1992, after a crackdown on corruption in the Bangkok airport (where snakeheads procured fake documents), the smugglers turned to boats, or what was known as the "bucket business." Most ships were barely seaworthy; some had as many as a hundred cabins and packed the bodies in. Routes were byzantine: the FBI tracked one group of migrants from Fuzhou to Hong Kong, Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur, Singapore, Dubai, Frankfurt, and then Washington. Keefe puts it this way: "In the minds of the snakeheads, humans were ultimately a form of cargo like any other, subject to the economies of scale." Like the global trade in more ordinary goods, shipping on the sea worked, leaving U.S. authorities in its wake for quite a while.

The chief complaint against Keefe's book is simple: no pictures. It almost seems absurd to ask for more from such a rigorously researched account, but the portrait Keefe paints of Ping leaves the reader repeatedly flipping through the pages for an actual picture. An eight-page photo spread is the only thing that could make this book even more worth the $30.

Ping was eventually arrested, and in 2005, she appeared before a judge in lower Manhattan. Keefe points out, "There was a measure of cruel irony in the location," seeing as the courthouse was just a stone's throw away from the Chinatown neighborhood from which she operated her empire. That observation, like much of Keefe's book, underscores the ultimately inexcusable and heartbreaking failure of the U.S. government to craft a realistic and workable immigration policy, one that would either accommodate or stem the relentless flow of humans desperate to live in the U.S. Without such a policy, the market assumed control. As it was in the 1990s, as it still is today, and as The Snakehead vividly demonstrates, the market lacks morals.