The Snakehead 

Why It's So Hard To Prosecute a Snakehead
New books dissected over email.
July 22 2009 11:44 AM

The Snakehead 

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Hey Sudhir,

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Funny story: When I was planning my research trip to Fujian Province last year, I wanted to avoid traveling on a press visa (which can occasionally entail a government minder). This was pre-Olympics, and the New York consulate was basically minting tourist visas. But after I explained that I was a fellow at a think tank, it wouldn't give me one. Over dim sum, I explained my predicament to a Fujianese friend, who laughed at me for going through the standard channels. "Give me your passport," he said. The next day I got it back, with a brand new tourist visa.

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This wasn't actually an illegal or illicit transaction, per se. One of the things I marveled at throughout my research for The Snakehead was the extraordinary range of innovative services that sprung up to help ease the depredations of day-to-day life among the newly arrived Fujianese in Chinatown. Because so many immigrants work more or less around the clock, it is often impossible to trek to Midtown and spend hours on a weekday waiting for a visa. So for a nominal fee, someone in Chinatown will arrange it for you.

Another thriving service, which is often hard for outsiders to understand, involves sending the American-born babies of Fujianese immigrants back to China. That's right: After going into debt and risking their lives to come to America, many Fujianese immigrants send their children back to the very villages they fled, to be raised by their grandparents until they are old enough to attend American elementary school. The parents often work so many hours, and for so little money, that they have no alternative. And just as the bustling snakehead trade ferries migrants to the United States, an associated trade flows in the other direction, sending thousands of newborn babies back to China. Sister Ping herself told me that one way she gained respect and affection in the neighborhood was by chaperoning babies on her many trips to Fuzhou. (And, she claimed, doing it free of charge.)

On some fundamental level, this is simply a system apart. Most of the Fujianese I interviewed didn't draw firm category distinctions between enterprises that are legal or illegal under U.S. law. Instead, these types of arrangements are often regarded in morally neutral terms, as survival mechanisms—and occasionally as sources of enviable revenue.

The trouble, of course, is that when you're a politically and economically marginalized individual living in a community where law enforcement holds little sway and everyone is simply struggling to get by, a "survival mechanism" can turn very quickly into an instrument of exploitation. Think of extortion, a fact of life in poor immigrant communities throughout American history, with its own bitter legacy in Chinatown. People still call it "protection money," and there's that twin implication that you're paying not only for the sort of protection the cops won't give you but for protection from the people protecting you as well.

This irony plays itself out in a really interesting way when it comes to the snakeheads. There's a widely held misconception that new arrivals spend years in virtual slavery paying off the people who smuggle them here. But in actuality, customers generally get about 72 hours to borrow enough money from friends, relatives, and loan sharks to pay off the fee. During that period, they're often held in safe houses, at gunpoint.

For years, the authorities tried to prosecute snakeheads for "hostage taking," citing precisely these types of circumstances. But prosecutors had a hard time bringing the cases because the individuals who were being held—and many, if not most, of their contemporaries in the Fujianese community—did not construe this period of captivity as a hostage situation. After all, the customer has agreed to pay the balance upon arrival. If he welches on the deal, the snakehead will be out thousands of dollars and may ultimately conclude that there isn't enough money in the business to continue, thereby making it harder for future emigrants to undertake the trip. And that's a bad outcome for everyone.

This was a commonality I noticed between the underground economies we have each explored. There's a line I love in Off the Books, where a local businessman says, sometimes, "You have to do things shady," and then qualifies, "Well, maybe not shady like committing a crime, but shady like you depend on each other." In insular, underprivileged communities, a set of dynamics can emerge which might be predatory and pathological but which also bind people together. Sean Chen ultimately satisfied his debts because he's a responsible guy but also because the Fujianese community is insular and close-knit. The feedback loop is tight enough that if you default on one loan, you are going to find it hard to get another.

Most of the police and FBI agents I encountered were too fixated on the darker side of this system to give it many points for efficiency. And understandably so: They were the ones called in when people did run afoul of the gangs or defaulted on their loans. When one of Sister Ping's customers failed to pay the balance of his fee, his family in China received a phone call saying that if they didn't pay, his captors would amputate his feet.

The two FBI agents who spent a decade pursuing Sister Ping were enormously frustrated at the almost philanthropic public persona she managed to cultivate in Chinatown, both on the merits—because they believed it was inaccurate—and because that image made it difficult to cultivate informants willing to testify against her.

Have you encountered similar views among law enforcement? Or a more grudging respect for the shady side?

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