The invisible illegal immigrants

XIAO-HUANG YIN, professor and chair of the American Studies Program at Occidental College, is author of "Chinese American Literature Since the 1850s" and co-editor of "The Expanding Roles of Chinese Americans in U.S.-China Relations."

ALL THE MEDIA attention on immigration has missed a critical part of the issue -- Asians. Although the majority of illegal immigrants in this country come from Mexico, U.S. and Chinese scholars estimate that more than 500,000 Chinese have been smuggled into the United States since the late 1980s, making them the second-largest undocumented immigrant group.

Most of the illegal Chinese immgrants came from Fujian province in southeast China. They were nicknamed “18K travelers” because they typically paid $18,000 each to smuggling kingpins -- called “snakeheads” in Chinese -- to get into this country.

That cost has jumped to $70,000, which has forced many families into debt to pay for the trip. Half the fee is given to snakeheads as a down payment; the remainder is collected by smuggling networks when the immigrant “safely” arrives in the U.S. Newcomers often hold several jobs and work 80 hours a week to pay off their debts.

Illegal Chinese emigration to the U.S. reflects a conflict between the central government and local authorities in China. Beijing may well be embarrassed by the illegal exodus, but local officials often consider it a business opportunity because people-smuggling is a source of revenue. Some of these officials also benefit from the illegal outflow because it reduces the labor surplus in their regions. This may explain why the trade continues to flourish in China despite many high-profile trials of snakeheads.


Undocumented Chinese immigrants typically work in the service industry, most notably in the restaurant business, today’s equivalent of the Chinese laundries of the pre-World War II era. There are about 50,000 restaurants, employing about 400,000 workers, in the U.S. owned and operated by Fujianese, according to news accounts.

Although some go from rags to riches, most illegal Chinese immigrants, plagued by limited resources and few transferable skills, struggle on the fringes of U.S. society in poor urban ghettos. About 30% of the families in New York’s Chinatown, for instance, make less than $20,000 a year, according to 2000 U.S. census data. As undocumented immigrants, they also live in constant fear of being caught and deported.

In the San Gabriel Valley, there are an estimated 4,000 Chinese homeless, Chinese community newspapers report. They sleep in the “garage inns” -- unfurnished garages with worn mattresses on the floor -- of local Chinese families. As many as 20 people sleep in shifts, paying $4 a “bed” at night or $3 during the day.

Many Americans are familiar with award-winning director Ang Lee, pro-basketball player Yao Ming or movie star Zhang Ziyi. These and other Chinese immigrants can use their talents or wealth to settle in this country.

Poor and humble undocumented Chinese immigrants, who are a critical element in the growth of the Chinese American economy, should be no less able to realize their American dreams through hard work. It is both impractical and inhumane to deport them.

A guest-worker program and an opportunity to become a U.S. citizen offer a better solution to the immigration dilemma, the inevitable outcome of the globalization of the U.S economy and political influence.