In June a decrepit cargo ship carrying hundreds of illegal Chinese immigrants ran into a sand bar off New York City, and six passengers died trying to swim ashore. The tragedy called out for an explanation: How did these people end up in such a desperate situation?
The news coverage of the Golden Venture accident put most of the blame on the smugglers, who charged their passengers some $30,000 each for a grueling five-month voyage in abysmal conditions that ended, for all but a few, in the custody of the Immigration and Naturalization Service. Clearly, the people who oversaw this trip did not deliver what they promised, and they treated their customers poorly, to say the least.
But it's a mistake to view immigrant smugglers simply as brutal criminals who exploit the hopes of poor, ignorant peasants. In many respects, they are business people offering a much-needed service, and they are not immune to market forces. For example, one immigrant tells The New York Times that "smugglers with the best record of transporting people safely command higher fees." The Times also notes that "the smugglers used to require deposits of at least 80 percent of the fare, but immigrants said that the competition…has gotten so torrid that 10 to 15 percent down is now acceptable."
Arranging to be smuggled into the United States is obviously not as cheap or safe or straightforward as booking a flight from New York to Hong Kong. But the problems faced by immigrants like those aboard the Golden Venture are due more to their legal status than to the base motives of their travel agents. As the experience with illegal drugs illustrates, prohibition tends to make things less reliable, more expensive, and more dangerous. In a black market, information about goods and services is hard to obtain. If customers are cheated, they have no legal recourse.
On the whole, however, illegal immigrants from China seem to be getting what they bargained for: a chance to improve their lives. There's no guarantee of success, so it's not surprising that the newspapers could find immigrants who said they regretted coming here. But as the cover story in the June 13 Los Angeles Times Magazine shows, many illegal immigrants are making a go of it, working off their debt after two or three years and saving money to bring relatives over and start businesses of their own.
Although this path to success exemplifies bourgeois values, it is foreign to the contemporary middle-class experience. It would have been much more familiar to colonial Americans, many of whom became indentured servants in exchange for passage here and the opportunity it promised.
The idea that something like indentured servitude could still have a place in 20th-century America offends people. The New York Times, which views "the smuggling of human cargo" with obvious distaste, quotes a union official who condemns the flow of illegal immigrants as "a modern-day slave trade."
Anyone who is truly concerned about the welfare of these immigrants should advocate letting them in legally. Few of us would accept the long work days, low wages, cramped living quarters, and extreme frugality of the typical newcomer from Fujian province. But it's false humanitarianism to insist that no one should be allowed to endure such conditions, even those who have risked their lives for the privilege.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Let Them In".