Illegal immigrants: the most helpless Chinese people in Haiti earthquake

| January 24th, 2010

20100124-haiti-iillegal-immigrants-01

From Southern Weekend:

After the Haiti earthquake happened for couple of days, Huang Keqiang’s (黄克锵) cell phone and QQ was vibrating nonstop, messages coming from his hometown Fujian surged at him. After Heidi’s earthquake, the president of China Lin Zexu Foundation (中国林则徐基金会) who is now the permanent resident of New York City immediately released all of his contact information online. January 16, the fourth day after the earthquake struck, he gathered over hundreds of the missing fellow villagers’ names, these people from Fujian attempted to cross the border illegally from Haiti to the United Sates were missing because of the quake.

After the earthquake, immediately some media have pointed out, Haiti, this major transit country for the illegal immigrants possibly trapped hundreds of Chinese people. However reporters learned, Fuzhou, Fujian Province Chinese Affairs Office has not yet received any calls for assistance so far; Most of the U. S. overseas Chinese community leaders also was unclear of the situation, because the illegal immigrants in the U. S. do not contact the outside world except with their relatives, including the communities; even the long-term assistant for the Chinese illegal immigrants, Huang Keqiang who is very much connected, when received requests for help from his hometown, the other party often hemmed and hawed, other than giving the names, was not willing to provide more detailed personal information.

This is a helpless and secretive group. Before the natural disaster has occurred, this western hemisphere’s poorest country in the ordinary Chinese people’s mind is a distant and unfamiliar place. But their (the illegal immigrants’) families are very familiar with Haiti, and see it as “the good fortune land”, because once their loved ones set foot on this piece of land, it means their destination the United States is only 1000 kilometers away.

However, only the people who have personally experienced knew, this trip was definitely not a happy journey.

According to Huang Keqiang, the 27 Funjianese who contacted China during the quake were divided into two groups and gathered in two residential houses in the outskirts of the Haitian capital Port-au-Prince. Fortunately avoided the epicenter, both houses and 27 people were unharmed, including the Snake Head (蛇头: The smuggler, someone who organizes smuggling people into other countries for profit), hired thug and the illegal immigrants, 26 men and 1 female. Before they contacted the China, they were staying alive with the leftover food and water in the residential house.

These details were too familiar to sister Liu (not her real name), a 28-year-old woman from Changle, Fujian province, in 2003 after a 4 month journey, successfully and illegally immigrated to the United States through Haiti.

Haiti was the fourth transit point. The previous three were Hong Kong, Taiwan and Europe. In Europe, we were gathered and locked up for three months, during which changed several countries. I do not know where we have gone. We were either locked in a small bus, or locked in a room. We were not allowed to go anywhere else. Every time when we reached a destination, we were always under the surveillance of the Snake Head. We could make a phone call to home to tell our families that we were safe, but we were only allowed to say one sentence, one sentence for 10 dollars.

Three month later, we finally were sent to the airport, when got off the plane and saw so many black people I thought we were in Africa. Haiti is the best water transit point for illegal immigrants to get to the United States. Consumption is cheap; society is unstable; very close to the United States, Only 1.5 hour flight to Miami; plus it is one of the few ally countries of Taiwan, Haiti has always had a diplomatic relation with China, smugglers and Taiwanese gangs made this place a haven for transporting Renshe. (人蛇 literally Man Snake, A person who sneaks into another country)

The other two paths for the smugglers are non-stop flight or from Mexico by land. Non-stop flight is always what the smugglers promise the illegal immigrants, but few delivers. By land or by water, is decided by the Snake Head after weighing the pros and cons. A journey of illegal immigration, if it’s short takes a few months or as long as two or three years, or even an indefinite period. Before the earthquake, the ships illegal immigrants at Haiti aboard frequently get into accidents; so far hundreds of people have been killed at the Caribbean Sea.

According to Huang Keqiang, the Chinese illegal immigrants trapped in Haiti, some just got there and some were there for four months already.

In Port-au-Prince airport, the person who provided assistance to our people turned out to be a local police, he took us to a downtown hotel and left after meeting with the local smuggler. Although this is Haiti’s capital, Port-au-Prince is so poor. The hotel entrance is always surrounded by a gang of kids who swarmed to beg for money whenever they see a car pulls up. When no money was given to them, they always gave us their middle fingers. I will never forget their bitter eyes.

The next day, we were put onto a jeep, after 6 to 7 hours of driving in the mountains, finally got to a villa. The so called villa is more like the farmers’ houses in China, each was 2 3 hundred meters apart. Inside, the three of us met with a dozen fellow villagers from Fujian.

We were put into 2 rooms by gender. There was nothing in the room, the windows and curtains were closed 24 hours a day, no electricity during the day but only at night.

There was a kitchen. We were divided into three groups taking turns to make food. The most we ate were eggs, withered tomatos and rotten leaves. First group started at 10 in the morning, when by the time it was the third group’s turn, it was usually already 1 or 2 in the afternoon.

The only entertainment was playing cards, but we could not slam the cards, if we ever made a sound, hired thug or the Snake Head would come in and curse at us and beat us. We chatted with whispers. The sisters in the same room as me were transited from Mexico and Thailand. Some of them were here for a year already and lost hope of leaving.

“Hundreds of illegal immigrants trapped here” is a figure estimated by the Chinese overseas community leaders according to their past experiences. After different batches of illegal immigrants arrive in Haiti, they are to be distributed by the local smugglers to be dispersed and locked up, waiting for the original led smugglers to organize boats, then picking up the “delivery goods”.

Huang Keqiang received over 100 phone calls and emails asking for help, so the estimate was reasonable. An overseas Chinese community leader who did not wish to disclose his name told the reporter that illegal immigrants are most likely not locked up in downtown Port-au-Prince, but dispersed in outskirts and offshore areas, which means they were outside of the earthquake areas. Therefore the survivors should be more than the 40 people they know.

At present the most difficult thing is to determine the life or death of those who have been forcibly sent to the local brothel and underground factories. This is Haiti smugglers’ punishment for those illegal immigrants who do not obey them. Social unrest, weak law enforcement and no diplomatic asylum contributed to their evil deeds. Using “living hell” to describe the Haiti illegal immigration networks is not an overstatement.

One night after I was thrown into that house, I was called out by the smuggler. I vaguely knew what was going to happen, in those days, one of the sisters living with me was called out every night and came back after about half an hour. She never talked, and no one asked, everyone knew.

That night I was rapped, and such things happened very often since. I did not resist nor dared to resist. They threatened me that either obey or send me to a brothel. And also my family would suffer.

Six of us sisters often cried and held back to not making a sound. One of the sisters told me, two girls who were with her are now forever disappeared, she didn’t know if they are alive or dead.

After half a month, the smuggler who brought three of us there finally came to pick up the “goods”. The night before I left, everyone came to see us off, five sisters all cried and said I was so lucky and they didn’t know how long they have to wait, they wanted to go home but they couldn’t. The smuggler led us there was from the same village Changle. He was also an overseas Fujianese Chinese Community leader; maybe he had more power than all the other smugglers. Actually the smugglers do not wish to hold the illegal immigrants for long term, the longer a “delivery” is, the higher the risk is and the lower the profit would be.

Before the departure, all my luggages were confiscated, the smugglers were worried about any accidents might happen on the way, and the belongings would leave trances of the group. Just like this, three of us were sent to the harbor pier, and got onto a speedboat in the middle of the night. After one day, I was officially in the United States.

Immediately, we were taken to New York in a sealed bus, it was my last time being locked up. The smuggler notified my family to pay a onetime payment of 68,000 dollars, or else I would be sent to a brothel or an underground factory to work to pay for the debt.

Lin Zexu Foundation President Huang Keqiang said even the life and death (of the illegal immigrants) is unknown, families in Fujian would not dare to ask the Chinese government for help, some fellow villagers told him, smugglers already threatened them to “not to say anything”. Obviously, smugglers cannot decide the fate of illegal immigrants in Haiti, but they can affect the lives of the families at home.

This scene has been acted out a few months before the earthquake. In mid-September 2009, a boat from Fujian Province, China, carrying 70 illegal immigrants shipwrecked in the Caribbean Sea near Haiti. Dozens were killed, among them more than 10 illegal immigrants were from Langqi, Fuzhou. When the reporter rushed to Langqi, all the locals were silent, even the families who have already arranged funnels said “you had the wrong address”.

According to the staff of the government at Lanqi, currently the cost of illegal immigration went up from 20,000 dollars which was the price two years ago to 100,000 dollars. They pay 5,000-10,000 dollars up front before they leave and the rest after they get to the United States within a week. One week of time is calculated scientifically. Before the illegal immigrants get to the United States, families would not pay, because 1. not knowing when they will get there, 2. Not knowing if they will be alive or dead. Once they get to the U. S., one week is enough to gather the money.

Prior to this, illegal immigrants’ families would not ask the smugglers for their whereabouts, and even more afraid to contact the police, even if their loved ones have been gone for several years.

After arrived to the United States, I have always worked in a relative’s Chinese restaurant in New York City Chinatown. After six years, I finally paid off the tens of thousands of principal loan plus the high interest to the loan shark. Now, my monthly salary rose from 1,200 dollars to 2,300 dollars. I think after couple more years of work, I would go home when I save enough money to renovate a house. I must renovate a house, or else the neighbors would look down on us.

I did not get married. The two weeks in Haiti left me with ineffaceable shadows. The past seven year, I never went out of Chinatown, I have no friends, and still can speak only a few words in English. When I get back to the dorm after work, the favorite thing is watching Chinese television, and to rent the kung-fun movies from the Chinatown video store. The past seven years, I have repeatedly thought about the same scene, going back to that moment of packing and getting ready to go, telling myself, do not go, do not go…

Contacted the 27 fellow villagers through a friend, Huang Keqiang was informed that there was a disagreement between them, the majority wanted to contact the Chinese rescue team, and go home, and not going to the United States anymore; the other group objected, and their reason was also hard to refute, “After going home, how do we live on?”

15 Comments | Leave a comment | Comment feed

  1. Lop says:

    Always sad to read illegal immigrants stories. The snakeheads are the most ruthless, greedy, inhuman bastards on Earth. Death of a Thousand Cuts is too good for them. Always finding excuses to extort money from everyone involved, their families and friends.

    One thing I’ve always wondered is how the supposedly poor village families come up with the money to send people abroad. 50.000 dollars or more isn’t uncommon all things included but damn,, 350.000 yuan goes a LONG way in China. Why not move to a tier 3 or 4 city, set up a shop or a restaurant, or spend the money on a university education and avoid all the risks, the abuse, the occasional murders and rapes? Hell,, for 50.000 dollars you can get your kids a 2 year college education in Europe with really good prospects of getting a much better job or if you are lucky be admitted to an almost free university. All of it legally.

    Maybe I should just consider myself lucky to have been born in a relatively properous country with all options open to me.

    Btw,, the article doesn’t mention the large amount of illegals who gets picked up and sent back to China with the consequence of having an enormous debt coz the tamade triads ain’t gonna give up on the promised money.

    • Key says:

      She took a high interest laon from the loan-shark, that’s how the family was able to pay the snakehead. Given when she goes to U.S. she can make relatively higher salary than in China. In the sotry Sister Liu said:

      After six years, I finally paid off the tens of thousands of principal loan plus the high interest to the loan shark.

  2. Wang Er says:

    Sad story indeed. One thing I don’t understand is why she doesn’t want to blend into the American society (bettering her English and getting a degree in a community university) after so many years of bitterness? Months of transit at the risk of being kill/rapped, years of slave labor and being tortured everyday by loneliness and homesick are only worth a shiny new house in her farmland village? How about borrowing some money from a bank, going to a college and then finding a job in a third-tier city in China? She wouldn’t earn $2300 a month but her most valuable six years can be saved from living like a punishment.

    • hxm says:

      She can’t take out a loan from a bank in the USA or attend American universities because she’s still illegal! One look at her paperwork from an admissions official or a worker at the bank and she’ll be deported right back to Fujian.

      If I were her, I’d capitalize on the many college students in NYC wanting to learn Chinese, set up a language partner deal with a student – you teach me English, I’ll teach you Chinese – and thus gain both some basic language skills and a friend.

    • Key says:

      The reason she came to U.S. the first place has to do with Chinese people’s mind set, that the street of U. S. is paved with gold. Especially in Fujian province illegal immigration to the U. S. has become a culture. Neighbors have influences on each other, when one family sees others paid the snakehead to get their family members to the U.S. and when they send money home, new houses were built with that money, they only see the good, not knowing how harsh it was to make the trip and how difficult their life is even if they make it to the U.S. Only after when they personally experienced the journey and once finally get to U.S. life was not what they imagined at all. Working illegally and getting paid less than minimum wage under the table; boring life and home sick and sometimes you always have to deal with the racial discrimination…
      Why doesn’t she want to blend into American society? That is another difficult task, in order to get green card, to even be able to work legally is not easy, especially these people probably don’t even have a decent education. Then another way is to get married with a local, there is always traps and tragedies waiting to happen going with this road.
      Yes in this case and a lot of case these illegal immigrants are better off if they just stayed in China like you said. That is why sister Liu in the story often regret, thinking about the past “telling myself, do not go, do not go…” But how was she suppose know when they are just so blind by the nice stories of other successful examples, by the mythical and fantastic tale of the American dream.

      • Lop says:

        Again all this ridiculous and backwards face-thing. “Yes my daughter went to America and see this new house she’s had built for us” right. Keeping up with the Wangs then tells you you HAVE to send your own kid abroad the same way.

        Anyway six years on 1200 bucks a month? After rent in a shared room and basic living costs AND paying off the bastard shylocks I am pretty sure you’d be having a lower standard of living than a Chinese person in China doing the same job in one of the tier 3 cities but you’d still be away from your family, being treated like dirt by your Chinese employer (Chinese business owners abroad are worse than dirt, thinking they are better than all other Chinese), having no rights, no access to education and having to live in constant fear of being picked up by immigrations -hence being very carefull about making connections to people outside of the closeknit Chinese community.

        Chinese people should watch more movies about life in the US if you are less than middle class (illegal immigrants would be the lowest) and how their life is about as far from the Land of Milk and Honey you can get.

        I know a Chinese girl who did her bachelors in China, took 2 years at a college in Europe, got excellent grades and then got admitted to London School of Economics for her Masters. Now she works for PWC London and earns almost 50.000 yuan a month. All legal and done with a foreign “investment” of less than 400.000 for study fees and living costs and no imminent risk of death or rape in sight.

        I of course know that not everyone can get those chances but there definately are other ways than shipping your loved ones away with the human scum snakeheads.

        • pug_ster says:

          Unlike the Chinese girl who got an western education, the people who was smuggled into the US are mostly people with little education. The only things that they can work in restaurants, supermarkets or brothels.

    • Wang Er says:

      hxm and Key, thanks for the replies. I just find an interesting article on this issue with pictures of the houses that these immigrants built back home:

      http://www.slate.com/id/2188450/entry/2188451/

      For Chinese readers, an incomplete translation is at

      http://blog.jackjia.com/?p=8451

  3. Henry says:

    While doing some academic research on this recently, I found that most illegal Chinese immigrants actually make more than minimum wage, or at least they did in the 1990s, when some major studies were conducted. Also, a lot of snakeheads are not affiliated with any other kind of crime and are actually well-respected by the immigrant communities. Many of them are women and many have American green cards. They are called “big snakeheads” and they hire out “small snakeheads” to do the dirty work. The worst violence is from the gangs who guard the “safehouses.” The rape of women by gangs at the safehouses or on smuggling ships seems pretty common.

    It’s interesting that with the booming economy in China, the price of being smuggled to the U.S. actually went up. This could be because there is higher demand, the ability to borrow more money in China, or smuggling is harder post-9-11. I would guess that after China’s economic rise, people in rural Fujian feel poorer than before, because they are comparing themselves to the rich people in the cities. Thus, they are more desperate to get rich by coming to the U.S. Most illegal immigrants have to pay back their family and friends back in China, who loaned them the money to pay the snakeheads on arrival in the destination country, and they usually accomplish this within 2 years.

    Anyway, I think the worst part of this process is the widespread rape of women. I wonder how it can be stopped. If you want to learn more about smuggling of Chinese, I highly recommend “Smuggled Chinese” by Ko-Lin Chin, who is a professor of criminology at Rutgers.

    • Lop says:

      I smell an apologist. Btw “some academic research”?? The Chinese community never talks about this to strange waiguoren. And even if they do you’ll never get the whole truth. Chinese “community leaders” abroad are more often than not triad themselves and anyone who talks about them does it very respectfully out of fear and sometimes a degree of misguided admiration. They’ll never tell you just how many women are involved in prostitution either or how much money they really make unless they are at the end of their rope. If you want to do “academic research” next time try not to go into it with a bias towards organized crime.

  4. Fuzhouren says:

    I am of Fuzhounese origin. My grandpa was from Fuzhou and I was born overseas as a foreign citizen.

    I’ve never been to China and I live in an area with almost no Fuzhounese. I can’t speak Fuzhou dialect at all. Kind of pitiful really…:/ I’m a cultural orphan.

    Fuzhou cuisine is famous for using 紅糟 (red wine lees). I managed to find a place that cooks Fuzhou food today and I tried it for the first time. Tasted awful because I’m not used to the sourish taste.

    When Chinese stop trying to escape from China, I’ll call it a great country…

  5. Laura Ashley says:

    Living with hope and miserable circumstances isn’t so bad. Living without hope and in miserable circumstances is pretty bad. Working illegally at a restaurant in the U.S. isn’t so bad either; they move from restaurant to restaurant and eventually the debt gets paid. You get hot water almost wherever you are, and as long as you can stay off drugs and avoid (or not work in one for too long) a brothel, you are all right. Many of these women would be f**king for money in Fuzhou or in the U.S., so why not? They are every bit as much of a “hustler” and “grinder” as any immigrant who ever got off a boat at Ellis Island, or who was ever rapped about by a rapper. Tough defines these women and men. Besides, the path they take is so worn down, it’s part and pacel of human migration – Chinese, Nigerians, Algerians, Poles, Ukranians…

    I don’t think many people know what the lifestyle is like in very rural Fuzhou… it can be cut-throat. And, most importantly, everyone – EVERYONE – thinks that they will be different. They won’t get raped, they’ll get lucky and run, they’ll find that pot of money, etc. They are playing the lottery, after all. No one plays the lottery with ideas on losing.

  6. samuel says:

    our prayers sand support are with them all

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