Over the years, my wife and I have had the good fortune to sponsor 10 international students in the United States. Five were from Western Europe, four were from former Soviet-bloc countries and one was from Taiwan. Nine of the students lived with us for a year each while they attended classes at Gar-Field High School. The tenth, however a girl from Taiwan was a college student who lived in a small apartment in Fairfax County.
Having these young adults in our home broadened and, I think, improved our understanding of different cultures. In the case of the Taiwanese student, we unexpectedly also learned about the dark side of illegal immigration.
Let me explain. The Taiwanese girl worked at a number of Chinese restaurants while she was completing her requirements for a college degree. She had been admitted to the country legally as an international student but, according to INS rules, was not supposed to work. No matter. She was readily accepted into the Chinese community in the greater Washington area, and that led to job opportunities in small stores and restaurants operated by Chinese-Americans. She would always be paid in cash, with no questions asked. It was in these jobs that she learned of the plight of her fellow Chinese who had come to the United States illegally.
The student (who has since returned to Taiwan) explained the problem to me in detail. Gangsters in mainland China, most of whom have contacts in the United States, arrange for the illegal immigration of young men and women who are desperate to escape the poverty and political repression in their home country. The cost: $60,000. None of the young adults had that kind of money, but the gangsters were accommodating: they would allow them to “work off” the debt after they arrive in the United States and get jobs. The usual terms: $1,200 per month for 48 months. However, if a payment is ever late, a 50 percent “interest charge” is added, bringing the amount due to $1,800. The illegal immigrants are warned that if they refused to pay, their relatives in China would be “punished” appropriately.
Our student told us that many of the illegal Chinese immigrants work up to 70 hours weekly for “tips only” in restaurants owned by Chinese-Americans. There was never paperwork, overtime or an audit trail. Nevertheless, some of them found they could earn up to $2,400 monthly this way. Half of this money would go to the gangsters and what remained was for living expenses.
The Chinese enter the United States in a number of ways. Sometimes they are hidden in the squalid holds of cargo ships that dock at West Coast ports. Others fly in to international airports carrying expertly forged passports. Those that are caught are detained briefly, but then released and told to return in a few weeks for a hearing. The young Chinese use this time to travel to major cities across the United States, where they fade into the population. Also, some young Chinese women have discovered they can gain special status with INS officials if they claim, falsely, that they fled China because of its policies on abortions.
Some in our community have argued in letters to the editor that immigrants come here illegally for free medical care, welfare payments and free education for their children. That isn’t even remotely true. They are coming here for an opportunity to work hard, to excel and to make better lives for themselves. Our restrictive immigration policies make that difficult, so the immigrants end up being exploited by gangsters and others. I think America can do better that. Most of our grandparents came to this country from Europe and elsewhere because it was the “land of opportunity.” It should remain so for repressed people all over the world.
Correction: In my April 1 column I wrote that Section 46.2-87.2 of the Code of Virginia pertained to the “extra $200” speeding fines. The correct citation should’ve been Section 46.2-878.2.
Gary Jacobsen lives in Woodbridge.