United States immigration officials estimate that 30,000 Chinese illegal aliens enter the U.S. every year. China has refused to take back an estimated 39,000 citizens that have been denied permission to immigrate into the United States, filling detention centers at great expense to American taxpayers.

The number of illegal Chinese immigrants in the United States is small compared to the millions of Mexicans and Central Americans that enter the country illegally every year. The Chinese immigrant issue didn't even make the news until 1993 when a ship named the Golden Venture ran aground off New York City and 10 illegal Chinese immigrants died when they tried to escape.

During one two year period many Chinese were smuggled from Canada through a Mohawk reservation in the United States, with Native American smugglers making an estimated $170 million. The story was the subject of the movie "Frozen River".

Illegal Chinese immigrants that make it to the United States disappear into the Chinese communities after reaching their destinations. In New York many get jobs in sweat shops or restaurants where they say the "live like pigs and eat like dogs." Some are forced into prostitution to pay off smugglers. A man who finds a factory job, paying $1,800 a month figures he can pay back smugglers in three years.

Those who don’t make it in their effort to get into the United States often try again. Some are turned away three or four times before they finally make it.

Book: "The Snakehead: The Epic Tale of the Chinatown Underworld and the American Dream" by Patrick Raddeb Keefe (Doubleday, 2009).

Illegal Chinese Immigrants to Japan and Europe

An increasing number of illegal Chinese are heading to Japan. Many are smuggled in on fishing boats, in shipping containers or are hidden in special compartments inside cargo ships. In some cases 50 people are squeezed in a space only one meter high and 60 square meters in area for an eight day journey. Sometimes Chinese boats use satellite positioning devices for rendezvoused with Japanese vessels for the trip to shore. Most of the Chinese who make the trip believe they can become rich if they make it to Japan.

Most illegal Chinese immigrants to Japan are dropped off along the coast of Kyushu or the Japan Sea. Some are brought to major ports. Hundreds have been arrested at Japanese docks. Fifty-one were arrested at one time after being discovered in truck container on a Bolivian flagged vessel. Most make it. Snakeheads sometimes help them find cheap apartments and menial jobs. Most of those that are caught are caught after they have been arrested or caught doing something else.

Many of the Chinese illegal immigrants who go to Japan are from Fujian and Zhejiang provinces in southeastern China. By one estimate a half million Fujians have made their way to Japan. Most come from the city of Fuzhou or cities and towns nearby. Most are middle class or upper middle class. The poor can't afford the smuggling fees.

In Europe Chinese migrants work illegally in Italy, producing many of Italy’s fine leather goods.

Smuggling Illegal Chinese Immigrants

Illegal immigrants pay smugglers as much as $60,000 for the trip from China to New York or some other destination in the United States. A fake business visa may cost $50,000. A fake marriage to an American costs $70,000. Snakeheads in Fujian charge between $10,000 and $20,000 for passage to Japan and between $40,000 and $70,000 to the United States. The fee for Hungary is $12,000. Illegal immigrants have paid $19,000 to $30,000 to be smuggled to Britain via Myanmar and Brazil and $45,000 for other routes into Britain.

Most migrants have no difficulty paying the fees, which are regarded as investments. Families and relatives pool their money together and send the best male candidate abroad with hopes for big payoffs in the future. Once a method to get overseas is worked out and the debt is paid off, money is pooled again to get additional family members over.

Many Chinese immigrants start in Fuzhou or other coastal towns in Fujian Province. From there they are sent by freighter, by air with false visas or hidden in cargo containers. People who get caught often claim asylum. Some say they are members of the Falun Gong. Some women say they are fleeing forced sterilization. The asylum process can sometimes last for years. In that times they work and make babies.

For several thousand dollars visa-consulting companies will help Chinese get visas to the United States. The companies prepare business cards and paperwork for fake computer companies, coach applicants for their interviews with U.S. embassy officials, and help them take steps to get a green card once in the United States. Those that enter this way typically enter with a tourist visa and overstay their visa.

The illegal immigrant trade is not without its risks and unscrupulous entrepreneurs. In September 2003 thirteen people were arrested in Fuzhou and Putian cities in Fujian Province after six Chinese women drowned after they were thrown overboard from a boat smuggling them from China to Taiwan.

Chinese stowaways discovered on a large fishing boat with a Taiwanese crew had been beaten by the crew, used as slaves, forced into group masturbation sessions and forced to have oral sex and anal intercourse. One of the Chinese men on the boat said he was forced to do all this after paying $26,000 for what he thought was an airplane ticket to the U.S. Others were forced to sign an IOU in blood for $20,000. [Source: AP]


People who smuggle people from China to other countries are known as snakeheads. They lie at ground zero of an industry estimated to be worth $3½ billion a year. In it early years human smuggling was a fairly straight-forward operation: in many cases those involved simply got some fake documents and flew to the country they wanted to go. As officials began to crackdown smugglers began to rely more and more on boats and overland travel. These days people smuggled out of China often go overland through Burma to Thailand and then travel by sea to the United States, with the final drop off being done by small fishing boats that transport the immigrants to shore from a mother ship moored in international waters.

The snakehead in charge of off-loading boats in the United States — the most difficult step of the process — earn up to $750,000 for the operation. Describing this step, one snakehead told The New Yorker: “The fishing boat was very small; the big boat was rather big. So we would wait until a big wave raise the level of the fishing boat, then people “from the big boat would jump over to the smaller boat.” In some cases people fell short, grabbed the side of the small boat, and ran the risk of being crushed when the two boats slammed together.”

Some snakeheads are former drug smugglers who realized the smuggling people is more lucrative and less risky than smuggling drugs. Snakeheads are generally only sentenced to six months or a year in prison if they get caught.

Snakeheads are generally regarded by Chinese in Fuzhou as honest business people who provide a valuable service. Most don't accept payment until after their clients have reached their destination. The snakeheads rely on word of mouth or referrals to get business. If their clients die or are incarcerated they will not get many customers and go out of business.

Golden Venture and Human Smuggling to the United States

Boat travel is considered the most dangerous method. In June 1993, the a dilapidated tramp steamer, the "Golden Venture" ran aground off of New York City with 300 illegal Chinese immigrants on board, and 10 were killed. The Golden Venture was won by a snakehead in a card game. The ship was grounded purposely along the shoreline of New York’s Rockaway Beach in part because the guide who was supposed to help the passengers disembark didn’t show because he had been killed in a gang dispute.

The Golden Venture brought the single largest arrival of illegal aliens in modern American history. The smugglers ordered the people on board to jump into the rough surf and swim to the shore. The seas were so rough that a 22-foot Boston Whaler sent to rescue them flipped over. Many of those that made it ashore where taken to a prison in York Pennsylvania.

The Golden Venture reached New York after a 17,000 mile journey from Thailand to Kenya and then around the Cape of Good Hope of Africa and across the Atlantic to America. The passengers were emaciated when they reached the United States. They spent most of their time in their underwear sitting in the incredible hot hold of the ship, subsisting on a few gulpfuls of purified sea water a day and some rice and peanuts. Food was so scarce that fights broke out over biscuits. One Fujianese became so crazy from the days of just sitting he catatonically pushed the buttons on a hand-held video game long after the batteries went dead.

In the 1990s another ship with 237 immigrants bound for the United States was intercepted by U.S. Coast Guard. Yet another managed to slip under the Golden Gate Bridge and drop off its cargo on a San Francisco pier.

Moscow was a major hub of Chinese smuggling operations in the 1990s. An estimated 60,000 Chinese immigrants lived illegally in Moscow awaiting onward travel to western Europe or the U.S. The human trade was run by Russian organized-crime groups linked with snakeheads in China

Sophisticated Round the World Routes

Tens of thousands of Chinese have entered the United States illegally through a sophisticated worldwide network of direct and indirect routes. Most Chinese leave China legally from the Fujian Province and have legitimate passports and visas to countries other than the United States. Many go to Thailand on legitimate visas. In Bangkok they make contact with snakeheads who give them false documents and fly them to third country, where they wait for a couple of months, and then fly to the United States.

The journey can take two years or more. One major route passes though Bangkok, Karachi, Nairobi, Buenos Aires, Madrid, Barcelona and London before finally arriving in New York City. Some Chinese travel from the Dominican Republic into Puerto Rico, where they can fly to the U.S. mainland without passing through immigration control.

After the Golden Venture incident it became difficult to drop immigrants off in the United States by boat. The preferred method then became smuggling Chinese immigrants to Central America and Mexico, where they could make their way overland to the United States.

These days immigrants stay out containers and the holds of ships. Snakeheads provide false documents, advice of bribing officials in transit countries and arrange passage of over the Canadian and Mexican border. The routes often change month to month depending on what the snakeheads think will work.

Snakeheads sometimes dress their clients in Armani suit so as not to arouse suspicion. The "fake document of choice" is a British National Overseas Passport like those given to Hong Kong Chinese before the 1997 handover.

Big Sister Ping, Super Snakehead

Chen Chi Ping, also known Big Sister Ping, ran a very lucrative snakehead business out of New York. Described as the “Mother of All Snakeheads,” she is a stocky, middle-aged women who worked most days in a restaurant and small shop in a New York's Chinatown and is believed to have earned up to $40 million from transporting people for her native Fujian Province, often through Mexico or Central America, to the United States.

Big Sister Ping was involved in the Golden Venture debacle (see Above), the death of 14 immigrants who drowned off the shore of Guatemala in 1998 and an incident in which four Chinese died trying to enter the United States by going over Niagara Falls in a $59 raft. Immigrants that made it were often carried in barely seaworthy vessels for exorbitant prices, sometimes given little food and as little as two sips of water a day and then tailed by gang members in the United States to make sure they paid back their debts.

Ping had contacts and associates all over the globe. Her customers generally paid around $30,000 — with a $5,000 down payment with rest due after a save delivery in the United States. If the migrants were caught by immigration she would forgive the balance. If they died she paid for the burial.

Ping was well liked in her community. She worked in her shop even though she was worth millions and gave out cash and loans to people who had high medical bills and needed money to send their children to school.

Big Sister Ping Gets Caught

Ping was eventually caught by police in Hong Kong and extradited to the United States. In July 2003, she pleaded not guilty to charges of bringing thousands of illegal immigrants into the United States and holding them hostage until they paid high transport fees. The charges were based on four incidents dating back to 1992 that resulted in at least 20 deaths.

In June 2005, Sister Ping was found guilty after month-long trial of smuggling, money laundering and trafficking in kidnaping proceeds. In March 2006, she was sentenced to 35 years in prison. She was given the maximum sentences after ignoring her lawyer’s advice and giving a meandering, hour-long speech on why she claimed to be a victim. A New York paper called her “Evil Incarnate.” Many in the Shanghai community regarded her as a kind of Robin Hood. In her home town in Fujian she is called a “living Buddha” and residents volunteered to do jail time for her.

The judge who gave the sentence called her speech a “lengthy exercise in self-justification" and said “it defied belief” to suggest that she was unjustly convicted. “You are not the victim of fabricated evidence,” the judge said. “You were willing to take advantage of the attraction of the United States for thousands of other people and turn it to your financial advantage.” Once Ping said she would be happier in a prison in the United States than free in her village back home in China.

English Channel Disaster

In May 2000, 58 illegal Chinese immigrants suffocated to death in the back of a truck trying to enter Britain from the Netherlands. Many of the dead were from Fujian Province. Some paid £30,000 for the trip to Britain. Two men survived the tragedy.

The victims (54 men and 4 women) had come from China on the Trans Siberian railroad and flights to Belgrade and were loaded onto the truck in Rotterdam with boxes of tomatoes. Before the truck was driven onto a ferry bound from the Belgian port of Zeebrugge for Dover, England it was sealed. Its only air vent was closed and its cooling system was turned off. The victims slowly suffocated inside a hot metal container and screamed and banged on the walls to get let out but no one head them.

The doors of the truck were locked from the outside. The victims clawed at the doors as their oxygen began to run out. One survivor said, "Some people removed tomatoes and tried to kick open the doors. There was also a lot of shouting and screaming, but no one came." No one realized they were there until customs officials opened the doors of the truck and found 58 bodies.

Dutch truck driver Perry Wacker was sentenced to 14 years in jail for manslaughters. He was the one who led immigrants into the container and closed off the only air vent. Ying Guo, the British contact for the smuggling ring, was given six years. The truck was loaded by a gang headed by two Turkish men, which had connections with Snakeheads in China.

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Updated September 2022

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