The Snakehead; or, Immigration Snapshots

Snapshots of Immigration, Fiction and Fact

Or you want to go to Russia maybe? Or China? They have been having a border war for fifteen years now, which is one way of keeping the population down — but you’re draft age and they draft girls there so you wouldn’t like that. Denmark maybe. Life is great there if you can get in, at least they eat regular, but they got a concrete wall right across Jutland and beach guards who shoot on sight because so many starving people keep trying to break into the promised land.

Harry Harrison, Make Room! Make Room!, 1966, 1973.

“When [The Raft] gets to California, it will enter a new phase of its life cycle. It will shed much of its sprawling improvised bulk as a few hundred thousand Refus cut themselves loose and paddle to shore. The only Refus who make it that far are, by definition, the ones who were agile enough to make it out to the Raft in the first place, resourceful enough to survive the agonizingly slow passage through arctic waters, and tough enough not to get killed by any of the other Refus. Nice guys, all of them. Just the kind of people you’d like to have showing up on your private beach in groups of a few thousand.”

Neal Stephenson, Snow Crash, 1992

A retro review from February 13, 2013 …

Review: The Snakehead: An Epic Tale of the Chinatown Underworld and the American Dream, Patrick Radden Keefe, 2010.Snakehead

On June 6, 1993, the ship Golden Venture ran aground off Long Island, New York. Inside were more than 300 illegal Chinese immigrants. Five didn’t survive their swim through rough seas to get to shore. It was a high profile case of human smuggling, and someone, it was decided, had to pay for the resulting unwanted publicity and inconvenience the government suffered. Those someones included Ah Kay, a clever and ruthless Chinese gangster; Mr. Charlie, a charming human smuggler with a great karaoke voice; Weng Yu Hui, former customer of a smuggling network and now manager of his own, and one Cheng Chui Ping, aka Sister Ping, at one time arguably the most important snakehead – a smuggler of people – in the world.

This really is an epic tale and not just about Sister Ping – a legal immigrant to America. Keefe touches on the history of Chinese immigration to America — what they called the Golden Mountain, Chinese organized crime here, and the specifics of immigration from Fujian Province where most of the book’s Chinese principals came from. His style is very readable, never confusing as he weaves back and forth in time like a novelist. He interviewed immigration officials, smugglers and their customers, gangsters, lawyers, and ordinary citizens to construct a picture of snakehead networks that range from China, Thailand, Russia, Honduras, Guatemala, Canada, Kenya, and any other place economic pressures push human traffic. Along the way we hear of characters with names like the Prince of Death and the Fat Man. It should appeal to those with an interest in international criminal intrigue though some might feel he sacrificed some of the details in the interest of epic sweep.

Keefe seems a credible reporter with an extensive listing of sources though I do find it hard to believe that the New York Times ever seriously opposed immigration in the 1990s much less did it hysterically.

And it is in his opinions about American immigration policy and his proposed changes for it that the book reveals the sort of naiveté, illogic, and nostalgia that often afflicts the American mind – be it Republican, Democrat, conservative, or liberal – when immigration is mentioned. To be fair, that’s not a large part of the book and it’s not enough to ruin it, but it shows up throughout explicitly and implicitly. We learn in the opening “Pilgrims” chapter that the voyage of the Golden Venture, the ship that ran aground off Long Island, voyaged twice as long as the Pilgrims’ voyage to Plymouth Rock. It’s an implicit argument that, morally, the people on that ship not only have just as much as right to be here as regular citizens – they have suffered twice as long so they deserve it even more. The remarks of New York City immigration official Bill Slattery are characterized as xenophobia. However, his contentions that the notion of political asylum draws immigrants and is abused seem supported by the coaching snakeheads gave their clients. When relating the story of one immigrant off the Golden Venture, Sean Chen, Keefe calls him a better American than him. Why? No reason other than the hazards of Chen’s trip, his desire to make money in America, his fleeing of persecution in China, that Chen likes American football.

To Keefe being an American is all about wanting to make money and fleeing trouble at home, not allegiance to certain concepts. Keefe never really considers that an immigrant also brings his culture. If his immigrants are so American, why do several in this book place family above the law, send their children back to China for schooling, foster organized crime by breaking, ignoring, or never learning the laws of their new country?

Keefe’s proposal that the process of granting political asylum should be regularized and less arbitrary is, on a practical level, not workable. Making the asylum process more bureaucratized, more like a regular court case, will result in the delays the regular court system suffers from. And what, exactly, do Americans owe the citizens of other countries who show up on our doorstep uninvited? If America is the lifeboat for the oppressed and poor of the world, what is its holding capacity?

Or, as Deng Ziaoping asked Jimmy Carter when the latter scolded him about not letting more Chinese leave, “How many millions would you like?”

Leave a Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.