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New Route To The United States Disturbs U.S. Law Enforcement

March 6, 1992

HONG KONG (AP) _ In growing numbers, Chinese are paying up to $50,000 apiece to crowd into Taiwanese fishing trawlers for a long trip across the Pacific Ocean that ends with an attempt to sneak into the United States.

This relatively new branch of the lucrative crime of alien-smuggling is bringing hundreds of millions of dollars into the coffers of Hong Kong’s notorious Chinese crime syndicates known as the Triads, officials say.

Since September, authorities have discovered seven boats packed with more than 1,000 Chinese nationals bound for the United States.

Nine other vessels have been spotted between Hawaii and the mainland United States. Agents are investigating whether they too contain Chinese, said Jeannette Chu, coordinator for Operation Dragon, the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service’s task force on Chinese alien smuggling.

The boats are part of an exodus from China, masterminded by the Triads, that has brought an estimated 80,000 illegal Chinese to the United States over the last two years, Chu said in a telephone interview from Washington.

Communist China’s 1989 crackdown on the pro-democracy movement sent many fleeing. Officials say this trend could worsen as the Triads seek a ″safe haven″ for crime in the United States before 1997, when China assumes control of Hong Kong from Britain.

Law-enforcement agents based in Hong Kong say the trawlers pick up Chinese from the coast of Fujian Province, China’s nearest point to Taiwan.

Although China and Taiwan have been technically at war since the Communist revolution of 1949, Taiwanese fishing boats began calling regularly at Chinese ports for water and supplies several years ago as relations between the two countries improved.

The number of Chinese illegally entering the United States is far smaller than the estimated 1.4 million Latin Americans who sneak in annually.

But Chu said the smuggling of Chinese is worrisome because of its connection to the Triads.

On the morning of Feb. 24, for example, a yacht believed rented by the Wo Hop To, a Hong Kong-based Triad active in gambling and extortion rings in San Francisco, was seized along with 85 undocumented Chinese aliens and six Taiwanese crew members off San Pedro, Calif., Chu said.

Once in America, agents say, some of the smuggled Chinese wind up as ″indentured servants″ attached to Triads or newer Chinese gangs to pay off the huge cost of their passage.

″They are poor; they will do anything to get out even sell themselves to the Triads,″ said Joe Choi, a Hong Kong travel agent who claims to have helped hundreds of Chinese leave the mainland in 1991.

The current desperation replicates a pattern dating back to the California Gold Rush when thousands of Chinese bought passage to the United States from gangs on credit that was repaid by work driving railroad stakes and other tasks.

″Today that system is much the same but the ‘work’ consists of ... forced prostitution, coerced membership in violent gangs and even acting as couriers for drug shipments from Asia,″ said Michael Lempres, then executive commissioner of the INS in testimony to the U.S. Senate late last year.

One problem for law enforcement is that deporting Chinese illegal aliens has become difficult following China’s 1989 crackdown. President Bush signed an executive order saying all Chinese who arrived in the United States before April 5, 1990 could remain indefinitely.

As a result, Lempres said more than 57,000 Chinese nationals, ″the vast majority of them smuggled,″ were issued employment permits.

A second problem is that the penalties for alien-smuggling are light.

In 1991, two Hong Kong men served 60 days and were fined $60,000 each for trafficking in U.S. residency cards. Law enforcement sources said they made more than $1 million selling the cards and are now back in business in the British colony.

Agents say alien smugglers are taking the new, direct route because a traditional route through Thailand has been blocked by corrupt immigration officials.

Thai officials have begun demanding that alien smugglers pay as much as $6,000 a head to let the Chinese leave, said an American law enforcement source, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

He said between 50,000 and 300,000 Chinese nationals are waiting in Thailand to be smuggled into the United States.

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