Journey to the Golden Mountain

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He lives in Chinatown and wears a white t-shirt draping down to the knees of his baggy jeans. But Kevin, who’s 13, still remembers vividly one particular moment when he was a toddler in Fuzhou. His father bought him a dog, then left for New York.

A relative already living in the U.S. helped finance the trip. Kevin’s father spent the next seven years working 12 hours a day, six days a week, as a chef in a Chinese restaurant in Buffalo. First he was able to repay the debt. Then he saved enough to fly his wife and Kevin to New York. (All names of migrants in this story have been changed.)

Kevin works hard at English with the help of a tutor through church, and he likes to talk–about soccer, basketball, playing video games at a cyber café near his family’s Chinese food market, where he often helps out after school.

One thing he’s not inclined to talk about, though, is his experience being smuggled here four years ago from Fuzhou, the capital of Fujian Province. Kevin’s reticence isn’t unusual. For Fuzhounese migrants, being smuggled is a commonplace experience, and people don’t like to discuss their journeys. They have, after all, more pressing concerns–like finding housing, employment and money for food. (Kevin’s mother also worries about talking to reporters, saying that another storeowner who talked to journalists had his shop closed down afterwards.)

So Kevin doesn’t know much about his father’s trip seven years earlier–not by plane but by boat, one likely similar to the infamous Golden Venture. In that notorious 1993 disaster, at least 10 of an estimated 286 passengers on a freighter died, plunging into Rockaway Peninsula’s icy waters after allegedly being ordered to swim ashore. Even a lot of non-Chinese still recall the indelible images of Chinese boat smuggling–of starving men huddled for months in foul, rusty holds.

Kevin’s too young to have heard about the Golden Venture. But he does know all about Cheng Chui Ping, the 54-year-old Fuzhounese woman awaiting trial for her alleged involvement with the disaster. Everyone has heard of Ping, he says. “She’s a strong woman.” Ping, who amassed an estimated $40 million in more than 10 years of operation as a smuggler of Chinese to the United States, has pleaded innocent to a seven-count federal indictment including conspiracy in alien smuggling, hostage-taking and money laundering. This past summer, she was extradited from Hong Kong for her arraignment, and currently waits at the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn. Her next hearing is scheduled for February 6, 2004. She faces life in prison.

Ping’s case is the highest-profile U.S. prosecution yet of a Chinese “snakehead”–a smuggler who wiggles illegals, or “snakes,” across international borders. U.S. law-enforcement agencies–from the FBI, which put together the file for Ping’s original 1994 indictment, to the new Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency (ICE), which worked with the Hong Kong government on bringing her to the U.S. for trial–are gloating about finally capturing the fugitive. The diminutive, unassuming Ping–she wears no makeup or flashy clothes, and has simply cut, shoulder-length black hair–was caught by Interpol agents at Hong Kong’s Chek Lap Kok Airport in April 2000 when she went to see off her son’s flight.

In an announcement the day before Ping’s appearance in federal court, ICE Acting Assistant Secretary Michael J. Garcia lauded the work of his office. “It may have taken 10 years to get Cheng into a U.S. court for smuggling thousands of Chinese migrants,” he said, “but that only demonstrates ICE’s resolve to identify, investigate, locate and bring to prosecution those who traffic in human beings.”

But a decade after Ping fled her storefront at 47 East Broadway–a basement restaurant and street-level variety shop–Chinatown’s main Fuzhounese artery has continued to expand with families like Kevin’s. Snakeheads’ business is as good as it’s ever been–by some accounts, even better. Tightened immigration enforcement following September 11 appears to have done little to deter new arrivals.

Peter Kwong, a Hunter College sociology professor who has studied the underground economy of undocumented Chinese immigrants in America, believes the Ping case will do more for U.S public relations than it will to slow the smuggling business. “They have the goods on [Ping],” he says. “But they are barely scratching the surface of the smuggling.”

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How deep Chinese immigrant smuggling goes is, of course, hard to say. In 1994, the U.S. State Department estimated that New York City’s Fuzhounese population was about 100,000 and that it would grow by 10,000 a year if immigration continued at the same pace. By those calculations, there are now approximately 200,000 Fuzhounese in the U.S. But the number is most likely higher, say Chinatown community leaders–closer to 300,000 in and beyond New York.

The mountainous, southeastern coastal region of Fujian has a long history of sending its people abroad to places in Southeast Asia and Taiwan, but migration to the U.S. is a relatively recent phenomenon.

Migrants began to trickle into New York in the early 1980s, paying snakeheads a fee of about $18,000 apiece. Migration got a tremendous boost after Tiananmen Square in 1989. The U.S. responded to the demonstrations by liberalizing its application procedures for political asylum for Chinese, and illegal immigrants–even those who lived thousands of miles from Beijing–began to capitalize on the presumption of political persecution in China.

Since then, the price has moved steadily upward. By the early 1990s, the fee had jumped to between $25,000 and $35,000. Migrants nowadays pay from $50,000 to $70,000. That price tag–an extraordinary amount of money in China, where the average yearly income ranges from $500 to $1,200–sustains an elaborate international network that handles everything from securing fake passports to paying off border patrol agents to bankrolling American lawyers who file bogus political asylum claims on their behalf. (China’s “one child” law is now a leading pretext.)

Various developments have fueled the cost increase. After the Golden Venture, the Chinese government cracked down on boat smuggling, which in turn upped the ante for local border patrol officials–they started demanding larger bribes. The U.S. tightened its borders, too, and increased vigilance after 9/11. This has forced smugglers to more frequently use air routes, which transport fewer migrants at a time and depend on costly fraudulent passports.

So, while some migrants may still make part of their journey to the “Golden Mountain” on dangerously illegal fishing trawlers, many more now come over in cargo containers or fly. The latter method, with its safer commercial air routes, has been a boon to women and children.

Boats still bring migrants to the Americas, if not directly to the states. Steven Wong keeps a photo album filled with images of boat smuggling in his cluttered basement Chinatown office. He snapped these pictures of young, gaunt men cramped together on the decks of corroded freighters when he was working as a translator for the Coast Guard in the mid-1990s. Wong continues to work with the Coast Guard and, to date, has interviewed around 2,000 migrants. “That’s 2,000 people with 2,000 heartbreaking stories,” he says.

Besides his work as a translator, Wong, 48, runs an anti-drug community organization that also focuses on legal rights for the undocumented, and on domestic abuse and health issues. In the front room of his office, a woman registers community residents for free medical insurance.

Wong is bombarded with cell phone calls–about setting up a blood drive in Chinatown, news of some Vietnamese person working for a smuggler on the West Coast, or the latest arson of one of the Chinatown buses. He often jets off to China, where he works on projects such as land rights for farmers.

But Wong is the first to admit that not everyone in Chinatown welcomes him openly. “I’m the black sheep in the family,” he says. He came here from Hong Kong when he was 16, young enough to develop what he calls an “American mentality of crime,” which means, he says, “I don’t care if I ruffle big feathers. I don’t like the code of silence in the local elements.”

Lighting up cigarettes throughout the day, he cases the neighborhood in a beat-up minivan and chuckles over the rumors people spread about him–that he’s a spy for the CIA, the KGB or the KMT (the Nationalist Party of China). He also jokes about the death threats he’s received in response to the anti-human-smuggling advertisements he’s taken out in the Chinese-language daily Sing Tao. Wong has been trying to raise awareness of what he maintains is the smuggling industry’s increasing capacity and hold on the community. He says the smugglers “have routes that are more frequent and more detailed than any airline company.”

Wong laments how peer pressure and family expectations in Fujian Province continue fueling these pipelines. “It became a fashion to be smuggled here,” he says, explaining the Fuzhounese mentality. “If they don’t go to America, people say they have no future. People will laugh at them.”

He talks about a man he interviewed who had over 200 hammer marks on his body after his journey. And an 18-year-old woman who, in order to repay the debt and begin sending money to her family, had delayed her education to work in a Chinese take-out in North Carolina–where she was recently shot in a robbery. “When they call home and the family asks how they’re doing, they lie,” Wong says. “They don’t want to upset the family.”

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Migrants knowingly assume the trip’s extreme costs. “They make the calculations before they come,” says Rutgers School of Criminal Justice Professor Ko Lin Chin, who has interviewed more than 300 smuggled Chinese migrants: “‘If I work for free for four years and pay off my debt, then I can make money, but if I stay in China, I will be poor for the rest of my life.'” And families willingly lend the money. Explains Chin, “In China, if you’re going to open a business, no one will help you. But if you tell them you are going to the U.S., it’s like an American kid asking for money to go to Harvard Law School.”

Everyone pools money together, anticipating assistance in return down the line–money wired from America for a washing machine, maybe a television or a new house. But more and more these days, the reward is one’s own voyage to the U.S.

When the newcomer arrives, he or she may be greeted by the snakehead or someone related to the snakehead, a welcome sight. Back in Ping’s day, they’d be picked up by members of the notorious Fuk Ching gang, who would transport newly arrived immigrants to notoriously unsafe “safe” houses.

Migrants must make a down payment before leaving, then supply the balance upon arrival–cash on delivery–usually paid by relatives in China, to leave no trace of the transaction stateside. Until they pay, the snakeheads detain them. Money-laundering services keep the cash flowing. That’s what Cheng Chui Ping’s East Broadway storefront used to do. “Ping would just make a call to a relative in China and wire money to your family right away,” says Jack Wang, a reporter for the Chinese-language World Journal. People preferred her service to the Bank of China across the street, with its long waits, and said she was even faster than Western Union.

Fuzhounese consider most snakeheads decent, smart people trying to help fellow countrymen achieve the American dream. Although U.S. authorities charge Ping with taking advantage of the misery of her fellow Chinese–calling her, with little affection, “the mother of all snakeheads”–in the Fuzhounese community she’s a Robin Hood figure, known affectionately Big Sister Ping.

She was one of them, and she’d made good. Ping came to the U.S. in 1981–as an illegal, later becoming naturalized–and soon started bringing a few people from her hometown, Shengmei, to New York. Her business, and reputation, grew rapidly. After Judge Michael Mukasey refused the $1 million bail request Ping’s lawyer Lawrence Hochheiser made last September, Jack Wang interviewed people from Shengmei along East Broadway to get their reaction. Their unanimous response: They would have gladly raised the money to post her bail.

Chen Xi, who runs the Hua Yi Florist shop across the street from Ping’s restaurant (now operated by Ping’s husband and daughter) says through a translator, “Most snakeheads are not that bad. They need to build a good reputation, since smuggling is their business.” Ping’s alleged ties to the Fuk Ching gang, Xi says, were unavoidable. “What could she do? [The Fuk Ching] had total control of everything along East Broadway in the early ’90s. All people in Chinatown were afraid; everyone had to pay a protection fee. Not even federal law enforcement could do anything.”

Jian Chan, a garment worker with slicked-back, feathered hair and a cell phone clipped to his black slacks, says through a translator that a client must pay for services provided, just like with any other business. “Smugglers have to get their smuggling fee,” he says. “If you can’t pay the money then you shouldn’t come with them to the U.S., because you know what kind of threats they’re going to make.”

In the heyday of boat smuggling–when snakeheads needed gangsters to watch over their loads of human cargo in safe houses–migrants often experienced terrible abuses, such as torture with a phone strapped on so relatives back in China got the message to pay up.

Jian refused to offer any details of his experience being smuggled here from Fuzhou in 1993. “I’m not the kind of person who likes to really fight with people,” is all he’ll say. Jian had hoped to find the famous Big Sister Ping for his trip. “To us Fuzhounese people, [Ping] is like a god or a savior,” he says. He had heard that unlike other snakeheads, Ping let her migrants take their time repaying, and that they could go to her for help finding jobs or for assistance if they had health problems. Ping was so well known that other snakeheads would claim they worked for her (which may have inflated her reputation). But Jian couldn’t find her, and, in the end, simply relied on someone else’s services.

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Needless to say, there’s a lot of money to be made in the smuggling business, which supports a well-staffed circuit of fixers and middlemen. The all-inclusive fee covers transportation expenses, lodging, food and, most importantly, the necessary papers to cross borders. Accommodations are rarely deluxe, and snakeheads never provide an itinerary beforehand. The journey involves a fluid international web of players who devise ever-changing routes. On direct flights, which are increasingly in demand, the trip may take as little as a few days. Journeys with several layovers may last six months, with the final land crossing through the desert from Mexico or across lakes bordering Canada.

Big snakeheads put up money to fund the schemes, and little snakeheads recruit villagers, telling them of riches awaiting them in America–big houses and fancy cars. People who can help produce counterfeit passports and visas are key members of the rings: gangs who specialize in stealing Asian passports, and corrupt Chinese government officials who accept bribes for the documents.

Many migrants come over on a “photo-substitute” passport–a real Chinese or other Asian passport with the migrant’s picture doctored onto it. And there are many ways to get “photo-sub” passports of varying quality. Some Chinese smugglers work with Taiwanese partners, since Taiwanese passports are machine-readable and thus more easily pass the stricter post-9/11 U.S. detection methods. So a Taiwanese smuggler might put an ad in a paper looking for a truck driver or secretary, and have the many job applicants fill out papers with personal information. They select the applicant most similar to the migrant, using the applicant’s information to get a new passport.

Smugglers also arrange fake marriages, sometimes with people already in the U.S. on legitimate student visas, which allows migrants to come over on family visas and bypass immigration questions about language ability or income. Snakeheads may also pay Chinese government officials to attach migrants to legal delegations visiting the United States–the migrants just slip away from the group. The corruption of the Chinese government continues to fuel the underground smuggling network. Says Kwong, “Why would the government stop people from coming when they would want their own family members to go?”

Smuggling networks also rely on Taiwanese fleet owners who sell their old fishing trawlers, as well as shipping crews, truck operators and subcontracted “coyotes”–snakes who’ve come to Mexico or other parts of the Americas across the U.S. border. In a 1998 investigation called “Operation Over the Rainbow II,” U.S. and Canadian law enforcement officials exposed a smuggling ring at a Mohawk reservation where more than 3,600 migrants had passed through in two years.

Immigration lawyers who file political asylum claims for illegals are also important players. In 2002, Robert Porges, the lawyer who filed for political asylum claims for 250 of the Golden Venture passengers, was sentenced to six to eight years for making fraudulent claims and collecting $13.5 million in fees from snakeheads.

Applying for political asylum is a common tack because it makes migrants eligible for an employment authorization card. Of course, there are complications. Applicants typically get detained and must pass an interview for the application, one that establishes they have a “credible fear” of persecution. But while immigration officials in New York and New Jersey are notoriously tough, elsewhere in the country it’s relatively easy to get paroled from detention.

Canada is another haven for asylum-seekers. In 1999, Lin, a shy, sweet-faced young woman with large glasses and a big smile revealing brownish teeth, left her shoe factory job in Changle to find work in New York. Friends brought her to a smuggler who sized her up for a photo-sub passport from Hunan province. She flew to Guangzhou, then Hong Kong, where someone was waiting to give her a new Hong Kong passport. From there she decamped for Vancouver. As instructed, she went to the ladies room, flushed the passport down the toilet, waited an hour for her arriving plane to leave, and surrendered herself to authorities. After immigration officials kept her in a room for eight hours, they explained they had to detain her unless she was applying for political asylum. She said she was. They had her sign a piece of paper, told her to come back in two or three weeks to pick up more forms, and then released her. An enforcer waiting for her at the airport took her to a safe house. The next leg of the itinerary included hopping a flight to Toronto, then a tour bus with a Canadian passport to New York.

The relative ease of obtaining political asylum has some law enforcers feeling powerless to stem the tide of smuggling. Jim Goldman, who acquired the nickname “Mongoose”–an animal that eats snakes–before retiring last August as the head of investigations for the INS in Florida, calls the U.S. government an “unwitting collaborator” in smuggling. Goldman has little faith in the recently restructured department, now part of ICE. “If you want to know what’s going on today,” he says, “you’d have to ask 33 different offices.”

Mark Thorn, the New York spokesperson for ICE, acknowledges the challenges but says his office has the resources to disrupt the operations and prosecute smugglers. “Trafficking today is more sophisticated than in the past,” Thorn says. “Instead of boats, individuals are being smuggled through airports.”

But Wong insists that boat smuggling continues. Fewer boats may be coming to U.S. shores, but many are still landing in South or Central America and Canada, he says. “You have hundreds coming in by boat, ending up in safe houses in Guatemala or Mexico,” Wong says, “given maybe one or two meals of rice and beans a day. Then they’re separated into smaller groups and handed over to coyotes to cross the border.” Other layovers include Russia and Cuba, Jamaica, Haiti and the Dominican Republic, or Bolivia. Guam is a hotspot, since migrants can apply for U.S. political asylum there.

“Even though my friends work in immigration,” Wong says, they can’t acknowledge the increased flow of migrants–“It would make them look bad.” Because of bureaucracy, he says, U.S. authorities have their hands tied; different government agencies simply do not cooperate effectively. “If [ICE] knows or says something,” Wong explains, “the U.S. government would think this low-level agency is just fantasizing, and that only the big guys like the FBI would know something.” And, of course, investigating smuggling rings requires international cooperation, too.

Smugglers, on the other hand, can work together using their tremendous resources–the State Department estimates the industry brings in $8 billion a year worldwide, with Chinese smuggling making up almost half that total. “Smugglers can form a joint task force,” says Wong, “but American law enforcement agents can’t.” After all, it took a five-year hunt and three years for extradition from Hong Kong just to bring Ping to trial.

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On a Monday morning, the one day a week most Chinese workers have off, groups of men smoking cigarettes stand outside one of the several employment agencies scattered around East Broadway under the Manhattan Bridge, waiting to line up the next job. Inside are other men and a smattering of women craning their necks to read the little slips of paper posted on the walls, or the other job listings on the dry-erase board behind the agency’s counter. The journey for migrants doesn’t end once they reach New York. This next phase–working to repay the smuggling debt–can last several years, and it may bring migrants to dishwashing or waitress jobs far away from the safety net of New York’s Fuzhounese community. Every small town across the country has a Chinese take-out with Fuzhounese kitchen workers.

These employment agencies link to an underground network of jobs in such places as Cincinnati, or upstate in Albany, or a slew of other sites across the nation from Virginia, Tennessee, the Carolinas, and Florida, to Wisconsin, Michigan and Nebraska. The agencies post phone numbers for special bus service to these places. (Fung Wah and other bus companies that have become popular ways of traveling to Boston, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C., were originally commuter routes for Fuzhounese workers.)

Constant migration in search of work makes the newcomers particularly isolated, vulnerable and dislocated. Baruch sociology professor Kenneth Guest noticed the transience of the population when he tracked Chinatown’s religious institutions [see “Amazing Grace,” LINK HERE]. At the area’s largest Fuzhounese congregation, the Church of Grace, Guest found a different crowd of 500 Fuzhounese worshippers each Sunday. He believes that approximately 60,000 Fuzhounese are in New York at any given time.

Manna Chan, who works at a mental health clinic serving undocumented immigrants, sees many clients suffering complete breakdowns–from the stress of debt repayment, the isolation of working long hours in the middle of nowhere, and post-traumatic stress from the ordeals of the smuggling trek. Men are especially lonely, since they vastly outnumber women. Her clients, however, don’t talk about the specifics of their journeys. Chan sees men in their twenties or thirties who, she says, shouldn’t be working because of the state of their mental health, but have no choice.

Poverty rates in Chinatown are staggeringly high: In 1999, the Asian American Federation found one-third of Asian families in Chinatown living below the poverty line, and Chinatown’s post-9/11 economic downturn has undoubtedly pushed more over the edge. Migrants rarely find jobs outside of the restaurant, garment and construction industries–fields that are presently suffering. Kwong observes that U.S. employers who hire Fuzhounese for sub-minimum wages are a critical link in keeping the smuggling system going–without those jobs, migrants would have no way of paying back the smuggling fees. “Because of the pressure of having to pay the debts back as soon as possible, they are willing to get low pay and much more willing to tolerate abusive conditions,” he says. As Fuzhounese migration has risen over the past decade, wages in these industries have fallen. Indeed, Fuzhounese have effectively displaced many Cantonese workers from the Chinatown labor market, pushing them to seek work elsewhere. At the Mohegan Sun casino in Connecticut, 25 percent of the workers are now Chinese, most of them Cantonese.

As the area’s newest immigrants, Fuzhounese occupy the bottom rung in Chinatown, resented for lowering wages, straining social services, and being “fresh off the boat.” A Fuzhounese college student, Keith Young–who emphasizes that he flew with his parents from Hong Kong legally–prefers to hang out with mostly Cantonese speakers and stays away from East Broadway, saying the people there are rude and rural. “They spit on the street all of the time,” he says. “They still come by boat.”

“You walk down East Broadway, you see thousands, maybe tens of thousands, of lost souls walking around,” says Wong. He calls the area “an undetonated time bomb,” and says that because the debts are higher than ever, the system continues to fuel the underworld: Men gravitate to illegal gambling joints, and women see prostitution as a quicker way to pay back the money.

Jean Zhao, who works with HIV/AIDS patients at the Chinatown Manpower Project, knows many women who’ve turned to sex work to repay debts. One of her clients had been working at a restaurant under slave-like conditions–she lived in the restaurant, was abused, had no time off. She replaced that with two part-time restaurant jobs, which still wasn’t enough to pay back the debts. So, she took a third part-time job as a prostitute. People will do whatever it takes to make money, says Zhao, and they don’t think of looking for help from outside organizations–for fear of being sent back. They do not use the service agencies that have Mandarin- or Cantonese-speaking staff because of their obvious hostility to the Fuzhounese newcomers. Only one social service organization–the New Life Center, a Lutheran church-affiliated group–has a Fuzhounese-speaking staff dedicated to helping the Fuzhounese population; it opened in December 2002 as a post-9/11 public assistance initiative.

Even Fuzhounese who own their own businesses are struggling to survive–including Kevin’s parents. His father worked in restaurants (and suffered a back injury from repeated stress); his mother came home after midnight when she worked as a seamstress. They saved and borrowed enough to open their own Chinese market this summer. Now, they work even longer hours running their business–every day, 8 a.m. until midnight–but at least they can watch their three-year-old daughter in the shop. She rejoined them about a month ago, after spending most of her life with her grandparents in Fuzhou. (Sending newborns back to China is a standard babysitting arrangement while parents are working.) Kevin’s family lives in one room with a makeshift divider in an apartment on Catherine Street. They couldn’t meet the $1,000-a-month rent, so they share their apartment with two other families.

Difficult conditions in Chinatown have even inspired some reverse migration. Don Lee, executive director of the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association, says a travel agency recently asked for his help in smuggling a group of 60 undocumented migrants back to China. Immigration lawyer Ted Cox also knows of several people who’ve worked here for 10 years and, unable to bring their families over through reunification laws, simply go back.

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Life in Fujian Province has certainly improved thanks to China’s global economic gains–and thanks to remittances from American migrants. An estimated $1 billion is sent to China every year, according to Jack Wang. Kevin’s grandparents tell him about new buildings and parks in his hometown of Fuzhou, especially in the last two years. They recently sold their farm to the government, which plans to build a new road. All this rapid economic development leads Kwong to believe that some people now have the option to stay, a choice earlier migrants didn’t have.

When Guest visited Ping’s hometown in 2001, he saw many new and empty multi-story homes. He also saw mostly elderly people walking around with little children who busied themselves with English classes, waiting for their turn to come to New York. Guest says that half of the town’s 60,000 to 70,000 people are in America. The dwindling population suggests that some Fujian villages may be tapped out. But recruiters continue going into more remote rural areas, wearing flashy new watches and boasting of America’s bounty.

Wong says China’s present economic gains are only widening the gap between the rich industrialists and the poor farmers, with corruption running rampant. China has a “floating population” of more than 100 million–people who move from rural regions to cities for work but are prohibited from getting citizen status in those cities and therefore cannot own land or send their children to school. So, for now, the impetus to escape remains.

And, according to Ko Lin Chin, a new generation of smugglers is cropping up and recruiting in places like the city of Wenzhou in Zhejiang Province–regions that in the past typically sent people to Europe rather than the U.S.–as well as three northeastern provinces. Chin reports that smugglers charge people from the northeast $12,000 to $15,000, since it is easier to get U.S. visas there.

Banners hanging in Fujian villages discourage people from going to the U.S. Lin remembers seeing them, and she remembers how no one paid attention. Now, however, some people may decide to stay as potential economic gains in China develop–and as terrible stories filter in. Like Lin’s.

Lin, the woman who went from working at a shoe factory to landing on a plane in Vancouver, didn’t make it to Toronto as planned. The person who met her at the airport said he couldn’t get the tickets. She ended up in Vancouver for three years, where she says she was held captive and repeatedly raped and beaten by her smuggler. He had her sign up for refugee benefits, so he could get the money, and he forced her to cook and clean for new arrivals. After two years, he allowed Lin to work in the kitchen of a nearby restaurant. It was there that she befriended a woman who helped her escape to Toronto, where she found another smuggler who gave her Canadian papers so she could board a bus to New York.

Lin has paid the $34,000 she owed the Vancouver smuggler, but he is still looking for her, afraid she will testify against him (though that rarely happens in these cases); his brother, a government official in Changle’s justice department, has been threatening her family in China. To protect her relatives, she can’t even let them know where she lives. “I keep telling people in China when I hear someone wants to be smuggled in, ‘Don’t do it,'” s