Patrick Radden Keefe, a Fellow at The Century Foundation,
discussed his new book, The Snakehead: An
Epic Tale of the Chinatown Underworld and the American Dream. The book
tells how "Sister Ping," the entrepreneurial human smuggler based in New York's
Chinatown, built a global criminal network. The
Snakehead also relates the events that led to Sister Ping's downfall, when
the "Golden Venture," the ship on which some three hundred undocumented Chinese
immigrants had made a four-month journey in a cramped, windowless hold, ran
aground off New York City.
In the 1980s Sister Ping immigrated from Fujian province in
China to New York's Chinatown, where she became a "snakehead," leading a
family-run human smuggling business to bring immigrants from China, along with
an underground bank to handle the international network's extensive financial
transactions. The wreck of the "Golden Venture" in 1993 led to her exposure,
but she took refuge in China, which refused to extradite her, and continued to
travel the world operating her human trafficking network until she was finally
apprehended in 2000, carrying a Belizean passport. By that point, she had made
around $40 million as a snakehead.
Sister Ping's story provides a window into the globalization
of criminal networks. Human traffickers have continually frustrated crackdowns
by the U.S. government. When U.S. immigration officials targeted flights from
Bangkok - a hub for illegal immigration - snakeheads began to smuggle people
into the U.S. on boats. When the Coast Guard stepped up efforts to intercept
smuggling ships, snakeheads began bringing immigrants through Guatemala and
over the U.S.-Mexico border. Criminal networks engage in "jurisdictional
arbitrage," operating in countries with lax regulations and venal officials.
And the greater the restrictions on human trafficking, the greater the rewards
for snakeheads: they now command fees of $70,000 per immigrant.
The Snakehead also
explores America's own complex relationship with immigration. The
administration of George Bush Sr. had been tolerant of asylum-seekers, but
beginning with the "Golden Venture" incident, the U.S. government has detained
most asylum seekers, including children. Some of the "Golden Venture"
passengers were detained for years. (In York, PA, home of a detention facility
where many of them were sent, residents rallied around the immigrants, and many
York citizens remain committed immigration advocates today.) About a hundred of
the passengers were deported to China, but nearly all returned to the U.S. with