Few Chinese Illegals Find "Mountain of Gold" in the United States
(Third of a series on Chinese illegal alien smuggling) (1980)
By Jane Morse
Washington File Writer
Introduction: Each year, thousands of Chinese pay criminals known as "snakeheads" tens of thousands of dollars for a chance to illegally enter the United States with the dream of making their "fortunes."
They endure long, difficult voyages, months in hiding, beatings at the hands of snakehead "enforcers." When they get to the United States, they find themselves trapped by debt and their illegal status.
Many never escape.
This is the second of a series of articles, provided by the State Department's Office of International Information Programs, that examines their plight.
Life at "The Mountain of Gold"
Peter Kwong knows a lot about the dashed dreams of immigrants. Chair of the Asian American Studies Program at Hunter College in New York, he has interviewed hundreds of Chinese living legally and illegally in the United States for his book, "Forbidden Workers: Illegal Chinese Immigrants and American Labor."
His research suggests that most illegals don't find the riches they are seeking. The huge increase in alien smuggling, he told The Washington File in a recent interview, has lowered wages for both the illegal as well as legal Chinese immigrants working in the United States.
Since his book was published in 1997, smuggling fees for Chinese seeking to enter the United States have risen from about $30,000 per individual to more than $50,000, Kwong said. Yet the increase in fees has done nothing to lessen the demand among Chinese seeking to make the trip illegally, he said.
In years past, most of the illegal aliens originated in Fujian province. Now, the smuggling operations are attracting migrants from other parts of China as well. "The smugglers are able to really expand new sources of people coming in," Kwong said.
The Fujianese have been coming to the United States illegally since the 1970s, according to Kwong. Many of them were able to take advantage of the amnesty programs offered by the U.S. government in 1986 and 1990. "These people have established a foothold," Kwong said. "Some of them did very well. And they are not facing the kind of problems as the newcomers."
"It's a typical situation: When you saturate a market, the new people coming in are more desperate, pay higher smuggling fees, but they are confronting a very, very tight labor market," Kwong explained. "So their upward mobility is very unlikely. And worst of all is that the people who came earlier are the ones squeezing them (the newcomers)."
Unable to speak English and with few job skills, the illegal aliens find themselves trapped in the "Chinatowns" of American cities. The largest Chinatown in the United States is located in New York City, and that is where the vast majority of Chinese illegal aliens end up.
But most of the illegals are young, strong men, who have already weathered the rigors of reaching the United States. Won't their determination and willingness to work hard for long hours lead to success?
Not necessarily, Kwong said.
"If you have $50,000 debt you have to pay off, you don't speak English, you don't have any marketable skills, (then) you will be working for a restaurant or garment factory," Kwong said. "And the wage level is quite clear -- $3 to $4 per hour. You work 80 or 90 hours a week. At the end of the month you have to give a significant portion of that to the smugglers....
"With that kind of sweatshop labor, you're lucky to save $10,000 a year. If you're healthy, you continue to work, that's looking down five years (to pay off your debt)," Kwong said.
Young people -- and most of those being smuggled illegally are young -- shortchange their education, Kwong pointed out. For example, if it takes a young man five years to pay off his debt, he may find himself too old to try to catch up with his schooling. Kwong added that if "you're working in the Chinese community or for Chinese employers and working along with Chinese employees -- you're never going to learn English....
"Then you're constantly trapped in that low-end, sweatshop market. So you save $1000 a month. Well, that's not enough money to really get out of being a worker. Maybe you could pool that amount of money with other people to open up a (fast food) takeout place. But if you look around the United States now, Manhattan for instance, (in) every block there are two Fujianese takeout places. They're killing each other competition-wise.
"So, I'm talking about opportunities. It is like a funnel: it becomes narrower, narrower and narrower. And if you're debt is bigger, then it's going to be very, very difficult," Kwong explained.
Kwong acknowledged that even low wages in the United States look good to Chinese earning only a few hundred dollars per year back home. But he also noted that it is becoming increasingly common for the employers of illegal aliens to be slow in paying wages.
"Labor abuses in the last couple of years have been really escalating," he said. "Now we're seeing even more (nonpayment of) back wages complaints."
"It's one thing to say 'We're making $3 per hour; it's not that bad compared to what's going on in China'," Kwong said. (The U.S. Federal government calls for workers to be paid a minimum of $5.15 per hour, but State laws vary.) "But if you work 80, 90 hours (per week) and then they (employers) withhold your wages and there's no effective law enforcement trying to redress that, then you're really talking about a different ball game."
"There is a 'casualization' of labor standards everywhere," he warned. "But for Chinese immigrants, it's even worse."
Kwong said that the pressure of debt forces some illegals to become criminals. "If you become an enforcer for a smuggler, you could accumulate money faster," he said.
Another trap is that the long hours of grueling work make illegal immigrants easy prey to sickness and injury.
"If you get sick or get hurt, there is no recourse," Kwong said. The emergency facilities at American hospitals will help, but without U.S. medical insurance, migrants face prohibitive fees for medicines and doctors' care. Furthermore, illegal aliens generally don't receive workers compensation, which would provide them with some income if they should become injured or sick on their jobs.
Kwong acknowledged that some Chinese illegal immigrants enjoy financial success. "In Chinese, we have the saying that 'the fame of one general is made by the bones of 10,000 soldiers' -- meaning that, yes, you always have a few successes," Kwong said. These "successes" are the earlier arrivals who accumulated enough money to own a takeout place and hire relatives, who in turn must pay high smuggling fees to come work for them, he explained.
But what about all the stories about illegal immigrants creating a steady flow of wealth enabling families back home to build beautiful homes and enjoy good lives?
"I've been to many places where the immigrants come from -- a lot of them -- we're not talking about a lot of beautiful houses," Kwong said. "Some of the beautiful houses are built by smugglers or people who make money from that kind of stuff. But that is not unique to Chinese. You see this everywhere else -- a few beautiful houses from expatriates are the ones that really became the symbol of the whole prospect of the country they want to immigrate to.
"I think that if you have to pay $50,000 coming in, you're not going to put any money down to build any mansions for the foreseeable future," he said.
But even those illegal immigrants who are just barely surviving overseas often attempt to send remittances back home. "And that, too, is kind of an incentive making those there want to come," Kwong observed.
"I think the mentality of the immigrants leaving is not always 'materially rational'," Kwong said. "That is to say that there are people who -- there are a lot of people in China and other places in the world for that matter -- feel that as long as they stay where they are there is no future."
For many young Chinese, leaving home to make one's fortune in another country has become the normal thing to do, Kwong said. "There's a question of pride involved after a while. If you're from that village (where) all the males have gone, and you're the only one left, then people will think you're stupid.... Your family will force you to leave. So the logic of whether it makes sense or not is no longer the primary consideration."
According to Kwong, both Chinese and Americans misunderstand the dismal situation of illegal Chinese immigrants.
Many Americans focus on "Asian successes" generated by ethnic solidarity and mutual aid, Kwong said. He noted, however, that the rotating credit systems that kept Chinese immigrants financially afloat in the past are collapsing under the tremendous stress of the newcomers.
For all of U.S. history, immigrants from many countries have flocked to American shores seeking a better life for themselves. Many have succeeded. And Chinese from the Fuzhou region, who currently make up the bulk of illegal immigrants coming to the United States, have a long history of seeking their fortunes in other lands. But as Kwong writes in his book, "Forbidden Workers":
"The peculiar Fuzhounese condition in the United States is indicative of the changing pattern of immigrant incorporation into America. European immigrants came to service America's first great industrial expansion after the Civil War. They were recruited to work in large industrial complexes in concentrated urban areas, and they worked alongside native-born Americans. The immigrant ghettoes they initially settled in were just transitional way stations, necessary only until they adjusted to the new society and learned English. The pressures of economic survival invariably forced them to move on -- to wherever work was available. Eventually, they found homes outside the ghetto, learned English, and integrated into American society.
"Today, the unskilled immigrant workers are recruited to work in decentralized industries and are employed by subcontractors, many of whom have shifted their production sites to right where the immigrants live, giving rise to a new pattern of concentration and segregation. Because most Chinese immigrants work for Chinese employers in what contemporary scholars have labeled 'ethnic enclaves,' their situation is even more isolating: they live, work, and socialize without ever having to leave the enclave, where the initial adjustment to their new country is easy and command of English is unnecessary....
"The ethnic enclaves, however, are a trap. Not only are the immigrants doomed to perpetual subcontracted employment, but the social and political control of these enclaves is also subcontracted to ethnic elites, who are free to set their own legal and labor standards for the entire community without ever coming under the scrutiny of U.S. authorities. And while this allows businesses operating within the enclaves to ignore standard American labor laws, law enforcement officials often claim that they have no choice but to deal with local elites because of the impenetrable social structure of the ethnic enclaves and the difficulty of dealing effectively in a language comprehended by only a handful of officials." (pages 11-12)
Chinese people, Kwong said, see only the "successes," but they don't see the suffering and regret of the people who enter foreign countries to work illegally.
He also noted that human smugglers are politically very powerful in localized areas in China, so there is little incentive to stop what some experts say is a billion-dollar-per year criminal industry.
Next: Illegal Immigration's Impact on Marriages
(Distributed by the Office of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State. Web site: http://usinfo.state.gov)