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Smuggled to America

Deng Chen was 14 years old when his parents paid smugglers $45,000 to take him from a small village in China to the United States—alone.

By Alex Kotlowitz


One day in 1997, Chen says, his mother came to his school, took him out of class, and told him that he was going to the U.S. She had packed Chen's clothes in a small suitcase, and she whispered that she had sewn $300 in American currency into a pair of his underwear. That was it; just a long, tearful hug at the airport.

Chen was given false papers, and traveled with a smuggler who posed as his mother. He never had to answer customs officials' questions; the woman did all the talking. They flew to Los Angeles and on to New York, where they were met by two men who drove them to a basement apartment.

That same day, he was put on the phone with his mother and instructed to tell her that he had arrived in New York. Chen's family then made their $45,000 payment to the smugglers. Once the payment went through, Chen was released and dropped off on the streets of Chinatown. He asked passers-by for help in purchasing a phone card and went to call his mother.

It is estimated that 10,000 to 50,000 Chinese are smuggled into the U.S. each year. The smugglers—known as "snakeheads''—have become quite sophisticated. Though many Chinese still come illegally by boat, many now also arrive by plane with false papers.

"A lot of Americans have a hard time understanding it," says Ko-lin Chin, a professor at Rutgers University in New Jersey. "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 for another family member to come to the U.S.

These days, more illegal immigrant children—mostly teenagers—find themselves alone in the U.S. They are sent here to work, to send money back home, or in the hope that they will have a better life. In 2005, immigration authorities detained 7,787 unaccompanied minors trying to enter this country, up 26 percent from the previous year. These numbers don't include all those who get in undetected, like Chen.

In Debt To Loan Sharks

Chen, who is now 23, grew up in a rural village in Fujian Province, about 400 miles south of Shanghai. His father worked at a local food store, and his mother labored at a brick factory. His mother told Chen that she worried he would end up leading a miserable life if he were to stay in China.

In that phone conversation with his mother when he first arrived in New York, Chen learned of the debt his family now carried. His mother cried, telling him he had to send money home or their lives would be in danger. Like many other families, Chen's had borrowed the money from loan sharks, who exact revenge if debtors fall behind in their payments.

Chen's mother told him to ask around for employment agencies. For $30 or $40, the agencies in Chinatown connect job seekers with positions, mostly at Chinese restaurants. But Chen could barely see over the counters, and he was told he was too young.

He spent the next three nights sleeping on a park bench. Chen returned to the employment agencies, only to be turned away again. Dejected, he sat outside on some steps. By chance, a man from Chen's village in China came by and offered to let Chen sleep on the floor of his room. He also found Chen a job at a local garment factory cutting loose threads from shirts. Chen earned two cents for each piece of clothing he trimmed.

Determined to continue his education, Chen enrolled a few months later at the local junior high school. He often nodded off in class, exhausted from the late nights cutting threads.

Chen became depressed and contemplated suicide, but he remembered a story from his village about an entire family who had been murdered because the son in America got behind in his payments to the smugglers. Chen sent most of his pay home, and remembers one week having to scrounge for change in his apartment to buy a dozen eggs and rice, which he lived on for a week.

Chen needed to make more than the $500 a month he was earning at the garment factory, so he persuaded one of the employment agencies to send him to a job at a Chinese restaurant in Wildwood, N.J., where he could make $800 monthly. He dropped out of school and stayed in Wildwood for nearly a year. His first job was as a dishwasher, but he was so small, he needed a crate to stand on.

He was just a boy who knew that if he didn't send money home, his parents might be assaulted or killed. So he worked 12- to-13-hour days, with one day off each week. At each restaurant where he worked, the owner housed the employees and provided meals, so Chen was able to wire home almost his full paycheck. He kept many of the remittance receipts; the amounts average $2,000.

Chen realized that one of the best restaurant jobs was taking orders over the phone, so he taught himself basic English with a book called Practical English for Chinese Restaurants. At one point, Chen made as much as $2,900 a month as a manager. For Chen, the three-and-a-half years he spent in the restaurants run together.

"It's slavery because the children don't have a choice," says Susan Krehbiel, director of children's services for the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service. They are pressured, Krehbiel adds, "by both fear and a sense of honor. They're caught up in a transnational network that is so beyond their understanding, and they're clearly just a small piece in a much larger drama that they have no control of."

In January 2001, Chen returned to New York and enrolled at Liberty High School, where he had an 85 average, while he continued to work to pay off the remainder of his debt.

A year later, a teacher with whom Chen had shared his story arranged to have him move to Buffalo, N.Y., where he found lodging at a shelter for runaways. A few weeks into his stay, his case manager, Maureen Armstrong, received a call at home one night. Chen, she was told, had unraveled. Armstrong rushed to the shelter and found Chen curled up on the floor, wailing like a wounded animal.

"I've been a good son, I've been a good son," Chen sputtered. "Why did they do this to me? I hate them for making me be alone. My family, why'd they turn their back to me?"

It took Armstrong hours to calm him. "The only thing I could tell him," she says, "was that his parents meant well, and somewhere down the road, it'll make sense."

Fearing Deportation

What weighed most on Chen was that he might be returned to China. Anne Doebler, an immigration attorney in Buffalo, searched for a legal solution. The only option, she decided, was a visa meant for victims of human trafficking—people brought to the country against their will (usually women forced to work as prostitutes).

Doebler thought she could make a case that Chen, because of his youth, had not come here of his own volition and that once here was in debt bondage, forced to work because of the threats to his family. He had kept many of the receipts for the money sent back to his family and immunization forms from his short time in junior high school in Chinatown—all evidence that he entered this country at age 14. He got the visa, which makes him eligible to become a permanent resident, the first step toward citizenship.

Chen eventually graduated from Grover Cleveland High School in Buffalo, seventh in his class, and won a couple of small scholarships to attend the University at Buffalo, where he completed his freshman year. Then, suddenly, he decided to return to New York City.

More recently, Chen had returned to working in Chinese restaurants, this time in Pennsylvania, but he was thinking about applying to Stony Brook University in Long Island, N.Y. He was also trying to arrange for his parents to come to the United States. He was looking forward to seeing them again; he had forgiven them.

He had come to understand their actions this way: They had honored him by sending him to the U.S. What if he had come here and didn't work? They thought enough of him, he says, to send him on his own, knowing that it was on his shoulders to earn enough money to repay the smugglers' debt.

"They trusted me," he says. It seemed only natural that a child would look for ways to explain that which didn't make sense, especially when it comes to the people he loves most.