Monday, May 10, 1999

Illegal immigrants
from China invade
resentful Guam

Island officials request money
and faster deportation

By Susan Kreifels
and Pete Pichaske


On Guam these days, it's not typhoons or tsunamis that have people on alert. A bigger worry on the small island: hundreds of illegal Chinese immigrants swimming ashore at night.

Over the reefs they have come, at least 800 dropped off by smugglers' boats since March, according to the Coast Guard.

The Coast Guard captured 450 of those on four vessels last month before they arrived on the U.S. territory. Of those, 350 were taken to Tinian, a tiny island north of Guam which is part of the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands. Guam officials said their prison was too full to handle more.

Tent cities have arisen on both islands while the Chinese await removal proceedings.

Residents say the mainland Chinese arrive with backpacks, sometimes knocking on doors for a drink of water or asking to use the phone. Others hide in the "boonies," or jungle. The local newspaper even runs information boxes on whom to call in case people spot the illegal immigrants or hear dogs barking at intruders.

U.S. immigration officials say they are working as quickly as they can to deport the immigrants, but the close to 157,000 Guam residents worry that sending them home will not turn a tide that could overwhelm the island.

Guam Sen. Joanne Brown said she fears "the message will start getting out that they can come to Guam. We don't have a Texas border patrol."

Guamanians pay $1 million

Alarmed by the increase in Chinese immigrants, the U.S. Coast Guard plans to supplement its regular two-ship fleet patrolling Guam with several more ships and aircraft.

Coast Guard officials here declined to say how many more ships will be sent, citing "operational security."

"It won't be a flotilla, but they need some help," said Lt. Cmdr. Gwen Keenan, a Coast Guard spokeswoman in Washington, D.C. The last three smugglers' ships intercepted off Guam, she said, were stopped by a 55-year-old ship.

A Coast Guard spokeswoman in Hawaii said she was told at least two of the new ships would be cutters from Hawaii. She could not provide details, but said the cutters may already have left for Guam.

"The word is they're going," said Petty Officer 3rd Class Angel Deimler.

U.S. immigration laws apply to Guam. That means immigrants can apply for political asylum and stay if they can prove it would be dangerous for them to return to China.

The immigrants "have a misconception that if they get to Guam, they can ask for asylum and they're home free," said Don Mueller, a spokesman for the Immigration and Naturalization Service in Washington. "It's a whole lot closer and cheaper than getting to the United States, and the results are the same.

"If we're going to stop what's going on, we need to send people back to China."

Guam residents are also angry that they are stuck with the immigrants' bill, more than $1 million so far for food, lodging, medical care and other costs. Island officials have asked Washington for money as well as faster deportation.

Mueller said the wave of illegal immigrants on Guam could be due to a smuggling ring that was busted by Canadian and U.S. authorities in an operation called Over the Rainbow II. Thousands of Chinese were arriving in Vancouver, British Columbia, then crossing the U.S. border and staying in Indian reservations. The pipeline ended in New York.

The smugglers' price: $30,000 to $40,000 an immigrant.

Mueller said he didn't know how much the Chinese were paying for the Guam trip.

"I expect somewhat less because of the distance and time," he said.

'A disaster waiting to happen'

Coast Guard and Immigration and Naturalization Services officials said their concern is partially for the safety of the immigrants. The Chinese boats "are literally a disaster waiting to happen," said Keenan. "There are no lifeboats, hardly enough food for everyone, terrible sanitary conditions.

"The Pacific is known for its heavy seas," she added. "It's a beastly voyage, and the conditions are pretty much terrible. These people don't know what they're getting themselves into."

The smuggling boats, flagless vessels crewed by Chinese, are confiscated by U.S. marshals, Mueller said. Guam news reports said some of the illegal immigrants were coming on Taiwanese fishing vessels.

The U.S. government is prosecuting smugglers as quickly as possible, Mueller said.

"In other situations it tends to be fairly loosely organized, not like the Mafia," he said.

Some Guam residents said they feared Chinese organized crime was involved, but Mueller said he had no information on that. He also said none of the immigrants has tried to escape detention, and he wasn't aware of others roaming the island.

On Tinian the 350 immigrants are staying in a tent city built by Navy Seabees on the abandoned airstrip that sent off the Enola Gay to drop the atomic bomb on Hiroshima in World War II. U.S. immigration laws do not apply in the Marianas, a U.S. commonwealth, and local officials have determined that all can be deported.

Mueller said, however, that the United States wants to make sure none of the immigrants qualify for political asylum, and U.S. immigration officials are reviewing the cases.

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