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Enter the Dragon: Inside Chinese Smuggling Organizations

by Sheldon Zhang and Ko-lin Chin

Illegal Chinese immigration has occurred for decades, but until recently it rarely received public attention except when the attempts ended in disaster. Today’s trend toward organized Chinese alien smuggling, however, is raising considerable concern and is gaining a great deal of public attention.

Limited immigration into the United States and the increasing number of Chinese nationals who want to emigrate to the United States have created fertile ground for an organized underground market in human trafficking. The emerging market is growing swiftly due to a number of factors, including rapid economic growth in the Pacific Rim; greater commercial exchanges between countries; the proliferation of telecommunication devices; and easier travel between countries via air, land, and sea.

Sheldon Zhang of California State University at San Marcos presented preliminary observations from his research with Ko-lin Chin of Rutgers University on the Chinese alien smuggling trade at a recent Research in Progress seminar at NIJ. Their research involves collecting data in a systematic way for the first time from individuals directly involved in organizing and transporting Chinese nationals into the United States. Zhang and Chin gathered data from three sites: New York, Los Angeles, and Fuzhou, China.

Zhang and Chin named two challenges for law enforcement: (1) constructing effective strategies to combat smuggling entrepreneurs, and (2) preventing new crime groups from forming partnerships with the traditional crime societies. The Nature of the Trade The researchers found that Chinese human smuggling is vastly different from other racketeering activities in the Chinese community, such as extortion, gambling, or prostitution. Chinese alien smugglers, or snakeheads, are otherwise ordinary citizens—government officials, police officers, small business owners, housewives, handymen, masons, taxi drivers, massage parlor owners, fast food restaurant owners, and Zhang and Chin named two challenges for law enforcement: (1) constructing effective strategies to combat smuggling entrepreneurs, and (2) preventing new crime groups from forming partnerships with the traditional crime societies. fruit stand owners. They have family networks and strong social contacts that give them the opportunity to take part in human smuggling. Zhang and Chin learned through interviews that no qualifications or training are needed to participate in the smuggling business; all a potential smuggler needs is a combination of proper connections, opportunities, and an entrepreneurial spirit.

As a result, Chinese alien smuggling is dominated by small groups of loosely connected entrepreneurs in temporary alliances. Zhang and Chin use the term “task force” instead of “organized crime” to refer to these groups. The unfixed and changing nature of Chinese alien smuggling organizations allows members to easily hide their operations from law enforcement. Yet, because smuggling rings usually involve a dyadic (oneon- one) business transaction, membership in rings is vulnerable to change, and the loss of even one member can lead to the collapse of an entire ring.

Recent Trends

Today’s Chinese smuggling rings use fewer fishing trawlers, and landings are likely to occur at peripheral locations, such as the Virgin Islands, Mariana Islands, and islands off the Canadian or Mexican coasts. Increasingly, smugglers transport their human cargo in container ships that can elude the U.S. Coast Guard and make interception on the high seas nearly impossible. The use of air routes is also increasing as many smugglers are able to arrange legitimate business trips, tourist visas, or marriages with U.S. citizens for incoming immigrants. Other immigrants fly into Canada or Mexico and enter the United States from there, or simply stay in the United States by not making their international connections at the airport.

Zhang and Chin's data show that among the subjects in the United States who actively participate in Chinese smuggling activities, 81 percent describe themselves as U.S. citizens or permanent residents. About 10 percent claim to be members of an organized crime group. The researchers estimate that the number of Chinese smuggled into the United States varies from 20,000 to 30,000 annually.

About The Author

Sheldon Zhang and Ko-lin Chin. For more information, contact Sheldon Zhang at Department of Sociology, California State University at San Marcos, San Marcos, CA 92069–0001, 760–750–4162, This article originally appeared in the National Institute Journal, a publication of the research arm of the Department of Justice.

The opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the opinion of ILW.COM.