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The Snakehead
by Patrick Radden Keefe


In the 1980s, a steady stream of Chinese were illegally sneaking into America. Most of them came from Fujian Province, they clustered together in New York City's Chinatown, working hard to send money home to their families in China. For years, law enforcement struggled to find the mastermind “snakehead” behind the illegal operation that was successfully smuggling the Chinese over the border. Their big break finally came in 1993, when a ship called Golden Venture ran aground with a cargo of 300 undocumented Chinese. Investigators were finally able to track down Sister Ping, a middle-aged grandmother who ran a little noodle shop in Chinatown while secretly overseeing a multimillion dollar smuggling network operating in China, Hong Kong, Burma, Thailand, Kenya, Guatemala and Mexico.

When most people think of illegal immigrants in America, they default to Mexicans or other Central and South American people. After all, they can literally walk across the border - there's a big Pacific Ocean between America and Asia, so it's harder for Asians to sneak in. But as Patrick Radden Keefe reveals in his meticulously researched book, human smuggling has become an extremely sophisticated operation, and a good snakehead like Sister Ping can become extremely wealthy if she can successfully bring Chinese safely into the United States.

One of the things that makes the story so fascinating is how Sister Ping is able to use the strength of family networks in Chinese culture to fund her enterprise. It was extremely expensive for her to bring someone over to America, far more than a single Chinese peasant could afford. But if a little is chipped in from many family members in multiple payments, her rates became a possibility. The people Radden Keefe spoke to made it sound like her organization took pretty good care of the immigrants in their charge, helping them get set up and keeping in touch with them once they arrived in New York City. It was just amazing to me how successful Sister Ping was, and how extensive her networks were.

Throughout the book, Raddon Keefe is clearly sympathetic to the plight of the immigrants, who seek work to better care for their families. But he also shows the cold, calculating side of the business as Sister Ping's customers are coached to plead for political asylum if caught. Some of her gang associates also remind readers that her operation is a dangerous one. The author's conclusion that immigration reform is needed does not provide any feasible solutions – but then, if finding one was so easy surely we'd have it in place by now.


4 out of 5 stars


To read more about The Snakehead, buy it or add it to your wishlist click here.





Peeking into the archives...today in:
2012: Mushishi Vol. 1 by Yuki Urushibara
2011: Shadow of the Swords by Kamran Pasha
2010: Happy Cafe Vol. 1 by Kou Matsuzuki
2009: News: Newbery Award 2009 & Discussion Question

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