Of Many Things

Behind the cheerful bustle of New York City's Chinatown, with its outdoor stalls filled with exotic fruits and vegetables, lie deep-seated problems that reflect the difficult lives of Chinese immigrants who manage to find their way to lower Manhattan. I had an opportunity to hear of some of these problems from Norman Walling, a Jesuit priest at Transfiguration Church on Mott St., in the very heart of Chinatown. Fluent in both Mandarin and Cantonese, as well as in Taiwanese, he is frequently sought out for advice and assistance by immigrants from Fujian Province in southern China.

“Exploitation weighs heavily on their lives,” Father Walling said, “even before they arrive.” Because most have no visas, they begin their long journey to the United States by resorting to the illegal services of so-called snakeheads in China. Snakeheads, he explained, charge $60,000 or more to smuggle a person to our shores, often through Mexico or Canada. It takes years to pay off these large debts, and then only by dint of working 12 or more hours a day, frequently at two jobs.


To find jobs—usually in tourist-oriented restaurants or neighborhood sweatshops—new arrivals often experience another type of exploitation. The employment agencies to which they turn know that the majority of job-seekers are undocumented, and they use their undocumented status as a club to intimidate them.

This bullying continues even when they are employed. Fearful that their employer might notify the Immigration and Naturalization Service if they complain of abuses, they prefer to stay quiet rather than risk deportation. Ever since the passage of the 1996 immigration reform law, deportations of undocumented immigrants have become increasingly common. For the Chinese, the difficulties are compounded by language limitations. Many, Father Walling said, do not speak a word of English.

The men have usually come first; after finding employment, they bring over their wives. These too begin working at the same punishing pace. Eventually a child may be born, and although the child automatically has American citizenship, the parents frequently send the baby back to China to be raised by family members there. In this way, both parents remain free to continue working 12 or more hours a day to earn money for the child’s support and to pay off their debts to the snakeheads. They know that the latter can harm their families if the payments are not made.

For some, work-related stress becomes too great and they snap. Father Walling gave the example of a man whose wife bore him a child whom they sent to China. Both went back to work, but the husband suffered a breakdown and was confined to the psychiatric ward of a local hospital. The wife became disgusted with him and went off to work in another state. Many follow this pattern of moving away. After initially settling in Chinatown, they take jobs elsewhere in the country for the sake of higher pay. So strong is their sense of isolation in these new locations, however, that they periodically return to Chinatown to renew contact with others from their part of China.

Most leave China to escape poverty, but an additional factor may be China’s one-child-per-family policy. Father Walling spoke of another young Catholic, who fled to escape being penalized for having fathered two children. “I have written immigration judges on behalf of people in such situations, describing them as members of the parish in hopes that this might help legalize their status,” he said.

As immigration laws become ever stricter in the wake of the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, not only undocumented Chinese, but all undocumented persons will find it more difficult to move toward legalization. They will be forced to continue living semi-hidden lives, finding themselves even more vulnerable to exploitation as economic conditions here continue to deteriorate and jobs become harder to find.

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