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Out of Fujian |
For centuries, fishing was the major economic pillar for coastal Changle. But after reform and opening-up, ambitious risk-takers in the region quickly realized that it's easier to make money abroad.
Illegal smuggling underwent tremendous growth in the 1980s to the 1990s. Most people left China via underground networks of traffickers known as "snakeheads," who charge exorbitant fees for forged documents and discreet passage abroad. In the beginning, people paid $18,000 to $25,000 to be smuggled to the US. Over the years, the price has gradually grown to over $60,000.
A snakehead recalled that families of the first batch of immigrants to the US, who worked hard and saved up, were able to build new houses in their hometowns with the money their family members sent back from overseas. This attracted other villagers to follow suit and smuggle themselves out.
The journey to the US is usually long and perilous. Research by a US scholar showed that in order to arrive at the US, the footprints of Fujianese immigrants span 42 countries.
Liu Mingda, a villager from Erliu village in Changle, said that almost every family in his village had someone who was smuggled to the US by ship in the 1990s. Most of them left secretly, and it would be days later before villagers found out that one more local had disappeared.
Liu himself had made three smuggling attempts, all going through many different countries and regions. In the first attempt, he flew to Russia using an authentic passport, and then entered the Czech Republic via Ukraine using a forged South Korean passport. Just as he was trying to move further west he was captured by Czech police, who sent him home.
His second plan was to cross the border to Vietnam from Yunnan Province, and then head to Thailand, where snakeheads would take him to Mexico, the last step before entering the US. His plan fell apart halfway in Vietnam, when an internal fight occurred among the snakeheads. Fearing uncertainties, he fled home.
His third attempt was to fly directly from Hong Kong to Los Angeles using a forged passport. He was busted in the Los Angeles airport and deported.
Although Liu didn't make it to the US, he was lucky to have survived. Many lost their lives. In June 1993, for example, a boat smuggling hundreds of illegal Chinese immigrants into New York ran aground, and 10 people died when trying to flee the ship. On its four-month voyage, the ship sailed from Thailand, stopped in Kenya and circled the Cape of Good Hope, then headed northwest across the Atlantic Ocean to New York City.
For most of those who successfully landed in the US, the only way to legalize their status is to seek asylum. Many forged documents and sought political asylum at immigration courts. China's one-child policy, for example, used to be a big driver of US asylum claims.
Still, only a small number of them would succeed in seeking asylum. According to statistics from the US Department of Justice, the US received over 36,000 applications for asylum from Chinese nationals from 2001 to 2005, but only 5,259 requests were granted.
For the majority of those were didn't get asylum and didn't earn a fortune, returning to China has become rather difficult.