Thursday, August 6, 2009

The Snakehead -- Immigrant Smugglers and the American Dream

Book Review The Snakehead: An Epic Tale of the Chinatown Underworld and the American Dream By Patrick Radden Keefe Doubleday, 2009 For those accustomed to viewing the immigration issue through the prism of Latin American immigration flows, The Snakehead offers another perspective. Unlike traditional Latin American illegal immigration to the United States, Chinese illegal immigration has historically been arranged by smuggling operations. When the smuggling ship Golden Venture was caught on a shoal outside New York City in 1993, few immigration activists and advocates paid attention to the tragedy of the some 300 Chinese immigrants aboard who struggled ashore and then were immediately channeled into the government’s detention and deportation system. It’s an engaging story, skillfully and beautifully told by Radden Keefe. By no means does the author pose as an authority in immigration policy, but he does offer some helfpful observations in the book’s epilogue. He notes that most of the world’s international migrants “tend to venture from the preindustrial to the industrial, from the third world to the first.” Without explicitly pointing to the new trends in Latin American immigration to the United States, Radden Keefe observes that immigration and border control results in something of a paradox for immigration authorities: “[I]ntensified enforcement along the border has the perverse effect of bolstering the human smuggling trade, because when it becomes difficult for individuals to smuggle themselves into a country they are obliged to turn to the experts.” The author points to the need for international enforcement mechanisms against human smuggling, such as UN Convention Against Transnational Organized Crime, with its 2004 Protocol Against the Smuggling of Migrants by Land, Sea, and Air. Mexico is a signatory to the protocol, but has done little to halt the proliferation of organized human smuggling operations on its northern border. In Snakehead, Radden Keefe also stresses the need for a just and efficient political asylum system in the United States. Current regulations force petitioners for political asylum to endure lengthy periods in immigrant detention centers until their cases are decided. With more cases being decided negatively, asylum seekers are now routinely deported after months or even years in immigrant prisons. And as the pointedly observes, “[W]ithout some effort to oblige asylum officers and immigration judges to harmonize the bases upon which they will grant asylum, it appears that the fate of individuals seeking refuge in this country will continue to be determined not by any coherent policy or sense of justice but ultimately by the luck of the draw.” Unfortunately, this call for a fair asylum policy is not one that receives much attention in the debate for immigration reform. If you are looking for a book that is a enlightening and engaging trip into a unknown world – an underworld – The Snakehead is a good choice this summer.

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