The Book of the Week is “The Snakehead” by Patrick Radden Keefe, published in 2009. This ebook recounts the details of a pivotal human-smuggling incident involving people of Chinese descent.
In early June 1993, a boat hit a sandbar in Breezy Point in the borough of Queens (New York City) in New York State. Most of its occupants were illegal immigrants originally from China. They were “smuggled” rather than “trafficked” in that they had willingly bribed a “snakehead” to help them move to the United States without identification documents, knowing the risks of their journey full well. Trafficked individuals also have the desire for a better life, but are usually unaware that they will be sold as property.
Organized crime in Chinatown in New York City in the 1980’s was rampant, consisting of not just arrangements to further illegal immigration, but of extortion, gang warfare, conspiracy, hostage-taking and money laundering. “But there was only so much money in shakedowns, burglaries and kidnappings.” The heroin trade carried heavy prison sentences. On the other hand, there was big money (approximately $30,000 for the snakehead per person) in human smuggling and it carried light prison sentences.
At the start of the 1990’s, two major reasons that immigration laws were lenient for political asylum seekers from China were: 1) The 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre had reminded the world of oppression in China, and 2) The country had a draconian population-limiting political system, allowing women to bear only one child and thereafter be forced to have an abortion or the men, to have forced sterilization. Another factor that contributed to the arrival of an excessive number of illegals on U.S. shores around 1990 was the fact the the Immigration and Naturalization Service was a poorly treated, underfunded and understaffed agency, that competed with the customs department– whose contraband confiscations made it a political darling.
Read the book to learn: why, around 1990, there was also a shift in the transportation method, routes and entry points for illegal smuggling; which perpetrators got caught and their fates; and the valid arguments on both sides of the debate over the legal and ethical issues on people’s entering a nation without the legal means to do so.