China > United States

According to the smugglers’ saying, a snake dies if it travels alone, but survives when packed with others. “Snakeheads,” or human smugglers in Chinese slang, follow that rule when packing and shipping their compatriots to the United States.

During the 1980s and 1990s, illegal Chinese emigrants paid to be packed together inside the hulls of cargo ships bound for the Americas: traveling by the hundreds, sharing a single bathroom and living on small portions of rice, peanuts and vegetables, sometimes for months. Once near shore, they were transferred to smaller fishing boats for a more discreet arrival, but risked falling into the open sea or being crushed as they tried to jump. Smaller groups of a dozen or so were locked inside shipping containers, occasionally with electric lights and battery-powered fans, but always trapped with their own waste and in danger of suffocating.

These days, snakeheads prefer airplanes, sending clients to Central and South America before moving them overland to New York City’s Chinatown, the biggest Chinese community outside of Asia, or San Francisco, the oldest Chinatown in the United States. They camouflage them as cosmopolitan travelers with new clothes or hide them in tourist groups, providing fraudulent documents or instructions on how to overstay legitimate temporary visas. This way, “snakes” risk nothing more than discovery by immigration officials. But for the snakehead, an arrest is a loss as bad as a snake’s death. Only when a migrant makes it all the way does a smuggler finally get paid. From China to Chinatown, US$70,000 per head.