I Googled this topic the next day and came across the article "The Smuggler's Due" by Alex Kotlowitz from the June 11, 2006, issue of The New York Times Magazine. This is an amazingly well-reported piece that chronicles the experiences of a young man who was sent to the U.S. by his parents and worked to pay off a smuggling debt of $45,000. Kotlowitz writes:
. . . the smuggling of humans from China has continued, though no one is certain of the numbers; estimates, though elusive, range anywhere from 10,000 to 50,000 a year. Some things have changed. The smugglers — known as "snakeheads" — have become more sophisticated and considerably more expensive. Though many Fujianese still come by freighter or by fishing boat, many now also arrive by plane bearing false papers; moreover, they often land — by boat or plane — first in Canada, the Caribbean or Central America. Immigration and Customs Enforcement reports that in recent months 50 to 100 Chinese each week have been taken into custody trying to cross the Mexican border.The workers have few expenses for food or housing (they are packed into apartments together), so most of their income goes to pay off the smuggling debts or is sent to their families back home in China. They have no papers or drivers' licenses and generally have little English proficiency, meaning that they have great challenges in navigating American society; after all, it is in the restaurants' interest to keep their labor force close at hand. Some escape the system, find work in non-exploitive restaurants and eventually are able to open and own their own restaurants.
The snakeheads, who in the 1980's had a Mafia-style presence in New York's Chinatown, often publicly beating and kidnapping those who fell behind in their payments, now apply much of their muscle back home in China, threatening and, if it serves their purposes, physically punishing family members of those who have fallen behind in their installments. For those on the Golden Venture, their travels cost roughly $30,000; the snakeheads reportedly now charge upward of $70,000.As the cost has gone up, the number of years it takes to pay off the debt has risen as well. In the early 1990's, some could repay the smugglers in two years; it now takes twice as long. "A lot of Americans have a hard time understanding it," says Ko-lin Chin, a professor at the School of Criminal Justice at Rutgers University in Newark. "But put yourself in their shoes." If they remain in China, Chin says, they will earn perhaps $200 a month. If they come to the United States, they can earn $2,000 a month working at a restaurant. Once the debt is paid off, most continue to send money home and often help to pay the way for another family member to come to the U.S.
What can we do? I'm not entirely sure. It's not just a matter of not eating at Chinese buffet restaurants; after all, most are lawful. The INS occasionally cracks down on restaurant owners that are exploitive and abusive. There's probably also a role here for local churches and Christians. My mom's Chinese church befriended some buffet workers and got to know their stories; they helped them learn English and get around. But the larger global challenges of human smuggling - does anybody know of any Christian organizations or mission agencies that work in this field?