Illegal immigrants from Fujian unable to visit family due to deportation fears

By Global Times – The Beijing News Source:Global Times-Agencies Published: 2016/12/26 19:18:39

Illegal smuggling underwent tremendous growth in China, especially in Fujian Province, in the 1980s and 90s

Many illegal immigrants are young married men who leave their families behind 

Smuggling is gaining popularity in Changle as China's economy slows

As many villagers become illegal immigrants in other countries, their children are left over in Changle. Photo: CFP

As many villagers become illegal immigrants in other countries, their children are left over in Changle. Photo: CFP

When 23-year-old Lin Wenfeng boarded a ship for the US in 1993 from his hometown of Jinfeng county in Changle, East China's Fujian Province, he was expecting a short stay and some fast money.

But becoming an illegal immigrant was his point of no return. Since then, fearing that he might not be able to re-enter the US if he left the country, Lin hasn't returned to China once. He wasn't in Changle when his father passed away, nor will he be able to attend his daughter's wedding next year.

One-way journeys like this happened to numerous families in Changle, known as a major source for Fujianese emigration to the US since the 1970s. According to estimates by Zhuang Guotu, professor at Xiamen University, from 1980 to 2005, over 200,000 people from Changle illegally immigrated to the US.

However, just like Lin, without a legal status, many have found it impossible to return to China. For their families back home, it's a sorrowful experience of loneliness and separation.

Broken families

Zheng Chenxi is 22 years old, and yet she had never met her father, who snuck into to the US when her mother was pregnant with her.

When she was little, she used to be proud of her father because having a family member successfully settling down in the US was something to be envied in Changle.

"I used to flaunt the American gifts my father mailed me, and enjoyed the envious looks of my classmates," she said.

But as she entered adolescence, her pride gradually turned into resentment. Every time she needed to fill personal information forms, she didn't know what to put in the column about her father's occupation. She celebrated Chinese New Year with her mother, just the two of them, and people often asked her sympathetically how long has it been since she last saw her father.

As most men who left for the US were married men in their 20s, their departure often meant their wives had to shoulder extra family burdens.

Zhou Ping, whose husband left for Japan illegally when she was 23, had to take care of her daughter and parents alone before her husband was repatriated by Japan's immigration authorities 10 years later.

When her husband was in Japan, part of the remittances her husband sent back each month was used to pay the debt they owe to the smugglers who took him into the country. The rest was carefully split up to pay for their daily necessities.

The same thing happened to Lin Wenfeng's family. Lin's father died in 2006. According to local customs, when a man dies, the oldest son should carry the body on his back to the village's ancestral temple and place his father in the coffin.

But with no children around - Lin Wenfeng has two brothers and one sister, all of whom are abroad with no legal status and can't return to China freely - Lin's wife had to carry her father-in-law on her back and complete the funeral ritual by herself, something unimaginable in a province where Confucian values still retain a strong influence.

Locals say that many couples have found lovers during their long and hopeless separation. Even so, many couples still choose to maintain their marriage due to the influence of conservative local customs.

Out of Fujian

For centuries, fishing was the major economic pillar for coastal Changle. But after reform and opening-up, ambitious risk-takers in the region quickly realized that it's easier to make money abroad.

Illegal smuggling underwent tremendous growth in the 1980s to the 1990s. Most people left China via underground networks of traffickers known as "snakeheads," who charge exorbitant fees for forged documents and discreet passage abroad. In the beginning, people paid $18,000 to $25,000 to be smuggled to the US. Over the years, the price has gradually grown to over $60,000.

A snakehead recalled that families of the first batch of immigrants to the US, who worked hard and saved up, were able to build new houses in their hometowns with the money their family members sent back from overseas. This attracted other villagers to follow suit and smuggle themselves out.

The journey to the US is usually long and perilous. Research by a US scholar showed that in order to arrive at the US, the footprints of Fujianese immigrants span 42 countries.

Liu Mingda, a villager from Erliu village in Changle, said that almost every family in his village had someone who was smuggled to the US by ship in the 1990s. Most of them left secretly, and it would be days later before villagers found out that one more local had disappeared.

Liu himself had made three smuggling attempts, all going through many different countries and regions. In the first attempt, he flew to Russia using an authentic passport, and then entered the Czech Republic via Ukraine using a forged South Korean passport. Just as he was trying to move further west he was captured by Czech police, who sent him home.

His second plan was to cross the border to Vietnam from Yunnan Province, and then head to Thailand, where snakeheads would take him to Mexico, the last step before entering the US. His plan fell apart halfway in Vietnam, when an internal fight occurred among the snakeheads. Fearing uncertainties, he fled home.

His third attempt was to fly directly from Hong Kong to Los Angeles using a forged passport. He was busted in the Los Angeles airport and deported.

Although Liu didn't make it to the US, he was lucky to have survived. Many lost their lives. In June 1993, for example, a boat smuggling hundreds of illegal Chinese immigrants into New York ran aground, and 10 people died when trying to flee the ship. On its four-month voyage, the ship sailed from Thailand, stopped in Kenya and circled the Cape of Good Hope, then headed northwest across the Atlantic Ocean to New York City.

For most of those who successfully landed in the US, the only way to legalize their status is to seek asylum. Many forged documents and sought political asylum at immigration courts. China's one-child policy, for example, used to be a big driver of US asylum claims.

Still, only a small number of them would succeed in seeking asylum. According to statistics from the US Department of Justice, the US received over 36,000 applications for asylum from Chinese nationals from 2001 to 2005, but only 5,259 requests were granted.

For the majority of those were didn't get asylum and didn't earn a fortune, returning to China has become rather difficult.


Residents in the city of Changle, however, are not daunted by these stories of separation, loneliness and peril. Enthusiasm for immigration persists, as shown by the dozens of immigration consultancies and law firms that line the streets near the city's public security bureau.

On December 9, in a shop called "Sister Lihua's Consultancy," an employee told the Beijing News that the company offers political asylum services after sending customers to the US. After arriving in the US, the company's attorneys will file false asylum claims on behalf of Chinese immigrants, helping their clients to get permanent US resident status.

More and more people are leaving China via snakeheads. A local snakehead who's been helping people move to the US for over a decade, told the Beijing News that as China's economy slows down, they're now sending several batches of clients to the US each month.

A popular route nowadays is to sneak into the US via Mexico, he said. But as the US tightens border control, this route may be subject to change.

When firecrackers are lit, villagers in Changle know that another man has arrived in the US successfully.

Far away in the US, people from Changle remember their family members by building ancestral temples and sticking to their customs from back home.

This September, in order to shoot a documentary about a Chinese smuggler, 24-year-old director Xu Jiacheng visited Eighth Avenue in Brooklyn, New York for the first time. The street has recently become an enclave for immigrants, including many Fujianese. Most shops on the street are cash-only as illegal immigrants don't have bank accounts. However, between street-side shops and restaurants, up to 100 temples dot the area - a symbol of their homesickness, Xu said.

All the names of migrants and their families are pseudonyms

Newspaper headline: Trapped abroad


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