A global problem with domestic implications, for virtually every country in the free world. As one of America's few simultaneous first- and second-generation immigrants, this is an issue that hits pretty close to home for me. The experience of being moved to a far-off foreign country against your will is upsetting enough when you have legitimate resident alien status, travel as comfortably as you can reasonably afford, will enjoy moderate affluence in your new country, and are guaranteed return to your homeland in a few years. I can barely imagine what it would be like to make the journey across the ocean in a fucking metal shipping container, only to be sold into debt slavery and/or prostitution the moment you get off the boat. And that's in America. They tend to go to the more geographically proximate countries first, like Australia
, and dear goodness you don't want to know how they treat illegals over there.
In 1993, a merchant ship called the Golden Venture
ran aground off Queens, dumping its hidden cargo of 286 illegal Chinese immigrants into the sea. Ten drowned trying to swim the last 300 yards to shore; many of the rest had to be rushed to local hospitals for hypothermia and malnutrition (they were literally starving to death). For over four years the remainder were held in prisons throughout the East Coast, in accordance with aggressive legislation meant to keep Mexicans from sneaking across the border into the U.S., while the courts processed their petitions for asylum. (Why haven't you heard this story before? Well, aside from a couple of ethnic communities and a handful of bleeding-heart liberals, no one in America gave a shit, because frankly, those illegals had snuck into our country to Take Our Jorbs and those minimum-wage Chinese restaurant jobs belong to Real Americans!) President Clinton eventually had them released at the end of his first term in 1997. The release gave them their freedom, but not asylum. 110 were deported
, one of whom was given a forced vasectomy
by local Chinese authorities on his return because of the One Child Policy (he had three kids).
A few of them reentered America illegally, and are again facing deportation
In 1961, Elaine Chao, the eight-year-old daughter of a prominent Shanghai businessman, would be brought in the passenger cabin
of a merchant ship to Long Island, a subway ride away from where the Golden Venture would end its ill-fated voyage 32 years later, to accompany her father as he expanded his business into America. She would enjoy a life of incredible privilege, buying her way through one of New York's most expensive private schools, going to Mount Holyoke and later Harvard, and ultimately becoming the trophy Asian wife of a prominent U.S. senator. A familiar face among the Republican old-boys club, it surprises no one when she becomes Deputy Secretary of Transportation under George H.W. Bush and later Secretary of Labor under George W. Bush. Her contributions to the people of the United States as Secretary of Labor at the beginning of the 2008 recession include photo ops with her husband, fudging the numbers on the cost of outsourcing government jobs to private contractors, and twiddling her thumbs while the unemployment rate breaks records. In 2008, the year the recession hits, Chao gives an incredibly banal speech
about how you white people can't possibly understand how hard
it is to be a Chinese immigrant in America but how you too
can be an American By Choice (tm) if you learn to make the same difficult sacrifices her incredibly wealthy, legally immigrated father made for her. Liberal commentators in academia cry foul with accusations of white privilege
, inexplicably. (Perhaps they take the concept of racial color-blindness too literally? Or perhaps they have forgotten that "white" is an actual American ethnic identifier as well as a synonym for privilege, so that the dissonance required to separate those concepts outside the neatly color-coded Western sphere of racism discourse would cause their heads to explode. What an adorably domestic way to look at an international problem. But I digress.)
In 1996, 14-year-old Deng Chen
works off the debt of his passage to America at a series of Chinese restaurants, lost and alone, without money, family, schooling, immigration papers, or even a rudimentary grasp of the English language. Several times the triad gangs that brought him over let him talk to his parents, only to have them anxiously beg him to pay off the debt quickly because the triads have threatened to kill them off if he does not comply. Nine years, special attention from a U.S. senator, and a heart-wrenching article in the New York Times later, he is still wandering across the East Coast from Chinese restaurant to Chinese restaurant, trying to pay off his debt.
In 2009, I overhear an elderly (wealthy) first-generation Chinese immigrant on the subway talk to his son in Mandarin about the illegals trapped in debt slavery by the international triads in Chinatown, and aiyaaah
loudly, see, son, this is what happens when you are too lazy to fill out your papers. The two Fujianese guys (not wealthy) in restaurant smocks across the train pretend they don't understand him, and whisper sadly to each other in Cantonese.
Later that year, I bring a visiting Chinese immigrant acquaintance to Chinatown, and she harrumphs and says, "No, show me where the real
Chinese people are. These are all peasants and migrant workers..."
Guys. We've got an awful lot of work to do.