The New Slave Trade

Chinese gangs are smuggling illegal immigrants by the thousands into America of ten forcing them into a life of servitude

Terrible as the past four months had been, nothing could have prepared the 281 Chinese passengers on the freighter Golden Venture for their landfall in America. It was 2 a.m. and their ship, a dismal rust bucket never intended for human cargo, had just run aground off Rockaway Peninsula in New York. Pandemonium reigned on deck. Buffeted by six-foot ocean swells, the Golden Venture creaked and rolled as the frightened travelers peered toward the distant lights onshore. Then, urged on by shouting crewmen, scores of would-be immigrants abandoned their meager possessions and clambered down the vessel's sides for the dangerous, 200-yard swim to what they knew as Meiguo, "the beautiful country"in this case, Queens.

Six of them died in the attempt, while nearly 300 others, including the ship's captain and the 12-man crew, were rounded up by New York City cops, U.S. immigration agents and the coast guard in one of the strangest rescue operations ever seen on American shores. As helicopters clattered overhead and coast guard launches circled the stranded freighter, hundreds of dazed and exhausted Chinese were pulled from the ship and the surrounding water and ferried to the beach. Most seemed grateful for the blankets, food and medical attention they got. Although a handful managed to elude authorities and vanish, survivors did not resist when they were led off to jail. "I was scared the Americans would push our boat back into the ocean," 23-year-old Lin Jiantong said afterward. "If that happened, we were all going to jump." In their hope and desperation-their absolute determination to come to America to build a better life-the Golden Venture's passengers are no different from the millions of European emigrants who passed through Ellis Island early in this century. But times have changed, and so has U.S. law. Lin and his fellow travelers have been detained as illegal aliens and may yet face deportation back to China. The ship's captain and 10 crew members, along with one passenger, have been charged with alien-smuggling. (Court-appointed lawyers said the crew had no knowledge of the purpose of the voyage.) According to U.S. officials, all are only part of a much larger pattern of illegal immigration from Hong Kong, Taiwan and mainland China that now brings more than 100,000 undocumented Chinese to this country every year-and leaves many in virtual servitude.

This clandestine immigration is orchestrated by Chinese criminal syndicates operating in this country and Asia, federal officials say, and it is now a multibillion-dollar business. They say the smugglers, known as "snakeheads" to the Chinese, charge their clients anywhere from $20,000 to $50,000 apiece for transportation to America, and that every conceivable method is used to bring the illegals onto U.S. soil. Some come by plane, using forged documents, and some by foot, walking across the U.S. border from Mexico. Increasingly, these law-enforcement sources say, the Chinese gangs are turning to ships like the Golden Venture to deliver aliens all along the U.S. coastline. Since 1991, U.S. authorities have spotted 40 vessels carrying thousands of Chinese aliens toward North America and intercepted 24 of them. But the ships keep coming, "We can't send our people, like Barbary pirates, out to interdict vessels on the high seas," says Jack Shaw, head of investigations for the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service. "Meanwhile, they're coming from every direction, every ocean-the Pacific, the Atlantic, the Caribbean. There are too many oceans, too many ships."

The Golden Venture's 17,000-mile odyssey is a harrowing illustration of this illicit trade. Law-enforcement sources said the ship was won in a high-stakes card game by a young Chinese named Ah Kay, the reputed chieftain of the Fuk Ching gang in New York's Chinatown. These sources said the ship acquired a Burmese captain and a mixed-nationality crew in Hong Kong in January. It then sailed into the South China Sea for a rendezvous off Bangkok with small craft carrying about 90 paying passengers-who happily shouted "America! America!" as the voyage began. After a stop in Singapore, the Golden Venture headed for Mombasa, Kenya, where about 200 more Chinese came on board. These would be immigrants, left stranded in Mombasa by another smuggling ship, crowded into the Golden Venture's darkened hold for what would soon become the most terrifying experience of their lives.

'So bitter': The Golden Venture left Mombasa and headed south, toward the Cape of Good Hope and the long passage across the Atlantic to the East Coast of the United States. Somewhere near the cape, the ship encountered a ferocious storm that left both passengers and crew in fear for their lives. The ship survived, but conditions on board got steadily worse. Each passenger was allotted barely enough room to lie down. There were no showers, and there was only one toilet for 281 people. "We brushed our teeth with salt water. We got skin rashes from washing with water from the sea," one passenger said. "Twenty days, that's how long they said the voyage would be. But it was long, so bitter, so hard. They never said it would be so bitter." Food-rice and vegetables, cooked on hot plates in the hold-was scarce, and the passengers fought among themselves to see who would get the most. "A lot of fighting was going on," a survivor told a reporter. "I think it changed many people, being on that ship."

And it got worse. U.S. officials said some of the 27 women aboard had been sexually abused during the voyage, though they did not say by whom. They also said a passenger, identified in court records as Kin Sin Lee, staged a mutiny as the Golden Venture neared the U.S. coast. Other passengers described Lee as a "trustee" or enforcer for smugglers who organized the voyage. "He was just like us in the beginning, just a normal guy like me," one passenger said. "But gradually over the three months, he became like a leader." The mutiny probably occurred because the ship twice failed to keep a planned rendezvous with U.S.-based fishing boats that were to carry the passengers ashore-probably to the Boston area, according to investigators.

At the weekend, all but four of the passengers were still behind bars. INS officials said their detention reflected the Clinton administration's determination to deter the continuing influx of Chinese illegal aliens-but if so, Washington may be forced to revise its current policies toward Chinese immigration. According to some Chinese-American community leaders, both the smugglers and their clients are well aware that Chinese illegals can avoid deportation by claiming political asylum under U.S. law. These critics point to changes in federal policy during the Reagan and Bush administrations that had the effect of making it easier for Chinese nationals to claim asylum. Though the primary goal of these policies was to protect Chinese dissidents from deportation, the net effect was to clog the INS appeals system with thousands of asylum petitions. In most cases, the INS is required to release illegal aliens who file asylum claims, and that has allowed many illegals to melt into Chinese communities in cities like New York.

They may be better off in jail. According to New York City police investigators, Chinese illegal aliens face ruthless exploitation by the same gangs that brought them to America. Few of the illegals are able to pay the smugglers' fee in advance. That means they arrive in cities like New York owing huge sums to the smugglers, who send enforcers to collect installment payments on the debt. As a result, many are forced to work 18-hour days at menial jobs for substandard wages, always with the threat of deportation over their heads and others are forced into prostitution, gambling and crime. "It's like involuntary servitude to organized-crime groups," says the FBI's Jim Moody. "Some, not all, stay with crime for the rest of their lives." Those who fail to pay the gangs face kidnapping, torture and death. Last week New York police raided a "safe house" in Brooklyn and freed 13 Chinese illegals allegedly being held by the Fuk Ching gang.

Lt. Joseph Pollini, head of the NYPD's major-case squad, says Fuk Ching is now the most powerful gang in Chinatown. Its reputed leader, 28-year-old Ah Kay, is believed by New York police and federal authorities to be the mastermind behind the Golden Venture's voyage. Police say that Ah Kay, also known as Guo Liang Chi, was convicted of attempted grand larceny and served two years in prison before being deported to China in 1988. He returned to ,the United States in 1989, was arrested and convicted of criminal re-entry. In 1991 he, too, filed a claim for political asylum, effectively blocking deportation, Meanwhile, according to police, Ah Kay consolidated his grip on the Fuk Ching gang and its alien-smuggling operations. Late last year, police sources say, Ah Kay and another Fuk Ching member got into a dispute, probably over money. Their feud may have led to a shoot-out in Chinatown last January and to a gang-style hit last month in suburban Teaneck, N.J. According to police there, a group of armed Asian men invaded a home and killed four young Chinese, including two of Ah Kay's brothers.

Heroin trade: The rise of Chinese organized crime and Chinese alien-smuggling have federal law-enforcement officials worried. Both have their roots in the gradual relaxation of the Beijing government's control over southern China-particularly Fujian province, where corrupt government officials have reportedly helped the smugglers load ships just like the Golden Venture. The Fujianese are also increasingly active in the international heroin trade. Since February, Fujianese criminals have been involved in six out of eight major heroin busts by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration's Group 41, a New Yorkbased unit that specializes in Southeast Asian drug traffickers. "Except for the fact that they're Chinese, the suspects looked just like Italian wiseguys," a DEA source says. And that's the real goal for knowledgeable law-enforcement officials-preventing Chinese gangs from becoming a deep-rooted problem like the Cosa Nostra.

So the Golden Venture's passengers are pawns in a much larger game-a struggle to protect Chinese immigrants from being victimized by their own countrymen, a diplomatic controversy between Washington and Beijing, and the never-ending war against drugs. Critics of the INS, like Arthur Helton, director of the Refugee Project of the Lawyer's Committee for Human Rights, say the Feds are wrong to make an example of the survivors by keeping them in jail. But veteran cops like Raymond Kelly, New York's commissioner of police, are convinced that their release, if it comes, will only lead to the "tragedy" of further oppression by the mob. But how long can they be held and what happens next? Like any policy abstraction, this one ultimately has a human face. "We risked our lives to come here," said a 23-year-old Golden Venture survivor named Zhang Hairong. "I'd rather die than go back-but then, I feel like I've died many times already."