Snakehead saga in Texas

Sometimes I think I’ve got serious problems. Then I read an article like this and realize just how easy my life is.

When Young Zheng’s lawyer initially failed to prevent his deportation back to China, the 17-year-old immigrant took matters into his hands.

Handcuffed and escorted by U.S. immigration officers to a plane bound for China early this year, the teen momentarily escaped and slammed his head into an airport wall so hard that he blacked out and had to be hospitalized. So intense is his fear of returning to face his smugglers in China that Zheng says he is willing to do anything to stay here.

“They will kill me if I go back,” he said in a brief telephone interview Tuesday from a juvenile detention center where he is being held in the Houston area. Zheng said both his uncle in the Midwest and his father back in China have received threatening phone calls from his smugglers demanding more than $50,000 for bringing him into the United States.

Zheng is from Fujian province, whose snakeheads achieved international fame last year with the utterly sickening story of the cockle pickers who drowned in the UK. His story is complex and full of intrigue and betrayal at the hands of the snakeheads. It’s almost impossible not to feel sympathy for the desperate teen.

The government’s response is, in essence, “Too bad.”

“(Zheng’s) claim that smugglers will harm him because of his inability to repay them does not meet the high standard of establishing a likelihood that he would be tortured by the Chinese government,” argued Jeffrey T. Bubier, assistant chief counsel to the Department of Homeland Security in Philadelphia, in a brief filed Tuesday.

So we know he’s going to be killed if he goes back, but since it’s snakeheads doing the killing and not the government, we’re okay with it. I realize we can’t let every Chinese immigrant into the country. But I’ll feel ashamed if send this 17-year-old to his doom.

Update: More here, if youy’re not depressed enough already:

Young Zheng’s first offense was flying into the United States illegally as a 14-year-old boy with phony papers supplied by Chinese human smugglers known as snakeheads.

But perhaps his biggest blunder, his lawyers say, was complying with immigration rules after he was apprehended and released, rather than fleeing and working to begin paying the $60,000 fee that his father in China had agreed to with the smugglers. Instead, he went to school and became a top student.

He also had the misfortune, his lawyers say, of believing his Department of Homeland Security control officers when they told him he could stop reporting monthly and show up every three months instead. When he checked in three months later, he was arrested and scheduled for deportation for failing to appear earlier, they said.

The Discussion: 18 Comments

Two comparisons come to mind of the Australian situation.

Firstly: DIMIA (dept of immigration) is filled with people who don’t have a clue what they’re doing, and who regularly give people incorrect information about the law and what they should do. You usually have to go up at least 2 levels to find anyone who actually knows what they’re talking about.

Secondly: this is actually a fairly common problem, and it’s only partly because of local government policy. It boils down to the United Nations High Commission of Refugees declaration. You see, in order to qualify as a refugee, you have to meet one of 5 categories. You must have a “well founded fear of persecution” on the basis of your political beliefs, religious beliefs, race … and 2 others I can’t recall off the top of my head. Anyway, what it boils down to is this: even if you have a well founded fear of being brutally murdered on return to your home country, unless it is because of belonging to one of the 5 categories, then it’s “tough luck, you’re not a refugee”. This came up in Australian law in the case of someone reasonably fearing murder by Columbian drug lords because of her journalism. The answer was “no, you don’t meet any of the 5 criteria.” So, yes, you can say that individual governments are choosing to act to the letter of the law (so to speak), and that they should be more flexible … but the foundation for the hard-nosed attitutude lies with the UN. Seems to me that this young man’s case is a classic example of it.

June 8, 2005 @ 7:46 pm | Comment

This guy’s situation has nothing whatsoever to do with refugees. He is under no threat of from his government. He paid smugglers to help him violate the law and enter the US illegally. He got caught. Now he wants to stay because his criminal plan went awry and his co-conspiritors want to be paid.

If he is allowed to stay then every smuggled illegal immigrant who is caught can and will use the same defence.

Political asylum is to protect victims of government oppression, not criminals from the wrath of their co-conspirators.

June 8, 2005 @ 9:12 pm | Comment

If this boy and his lawyers can make a case that the snakehead operation was connected with government officials and their official power he may have a hope of relief.

June 8, 2005 @ 9:44 pm | Comment

No, Pete, he won’t.

I don’t care if they show that Hu Jintao ran the smuggling ring from his office in his spare time, the kid isn’t a refugee. To qualify as a refugee one must have suffered or fear presecution on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion..” INA 101(a)(42)(A)

Fearing punishment on account of owing money is not on the list.

The kid is going back.

June 8, 2005 @ 10:12 pm | Comment

Yes, put away the hankerchiefs everyone. The kid and his father paid criminals to illegally get him into the US, which they did.

it was a gamble that the father and the boy ovbiously thought were taking. The boy has gained a free education (I assume it was free as he didn’t have the cash to pay the gangsters) and now doesn’t want to go back to China. Who can blame him?

How many other mainland Chinese people would gladly go to America if they had the chance? Tough, he broke multiple laws and now he has to go back. Good riddance. He shouldn’t have been there in the first place.

The fact is, if he’s scared of returning to Fujian, he can go to any other province in China and he’ll be perfectly safe and untraceable.

He could also make use of forged ID papers again as he favours their use so much.

Conrad is right, let him in and you’ll have every mainland Chinese going to the US, throwing themselves at walls and stating that they’re scared because they haven’t paid the snakeheads.

June 9, 2005 @ 4:43 am | Comment

Thanks Conrad for supplying the exact words … those were the 5 categories I mentioned.

June 9, 2005 @ 8:03 am | Comment

This is clearly racism.

If he had been Mexican, he could have received amnesty. /sarcasm

June 9, 2005 @ 10:28 am | Comment

I fully understand he doesn’t meet the legal criteria for refugee status. Hopwever, the fact that he used illegal documents to flee China doesn’t make him an awful criminal — he was 14 years old at the time, for Christ’s sake!

When I read this, I can’t help being moved, and to want to help the guy:

But perhaps his biggest blunder, his lawyers say, was complying with immigration rules after he was apprehended and released, rather than fleeing and working to begin paying the $60,000 fee that his father in China had agreed to with the smugglers. Instead, he went to school and became a top student.

Call me a sentimental liberal. I really don’t want to see this boy killed.

June 9, 2005 @ 10:41 am | Comment

Maybe if he were Cuban?,2933,159060,00.html

June 9, 2005 @ 6:56 pm | Comment


His lawyers ought to be ashamed of themselves. What they are saying, as officers of the court, is that their client should have committed ANOTHER crime by fleeing after being caught.

Of course he’s a criminal. Immigration law applies to minors every bit as much as it does adults and he and his family knowingly consipered with a criminal enterprise to break US immigration law.

Besides, I seriously doubt that he’ll be killed. How many Chinese illegals get caught and shipped back from the US each year? A hell of a lot, I’d say. How many have you heard about being killed by the snakeheads? Few if any. China may not be an open society but if this were really going on, I’d think we’d have heard something about it somewhere.

Besides, I imagine actually killing your customers who you are unsuccessful in smuggling in would be bad for business. I’m sure there a threats, ect. to get what they can, but you have to know that the fact that a certain percentage of your customers are going to get caught and deported back to China and not be able to pay is figured into the $60,000 price the snakeheads allegedly charged.

I used to do some aslyum pro bono work when I practiced in the US and, believe me, people will lie in order to stay. This snakehead murder story sounds like hyperbole to me. And if owing snakeheads money becomes grounds for political asylum, you might as well open the borders because everyone will make that claim.

June 9, 2005 @ 7:54 pm | Comment

Looks like this 17 year old is well versed in the survival arts of the low life; imagine that at the age of 14 he first arranged for getting his tender ass illegally transported half way across the world, and the oh not so ingenious stunt he pulled at the airport which granted him a temporary stay of what he claimed to be his execution. But what his age should do for him, it should just about afford him a one way trip back to China. If he’s old enough to do all that, he’s old enough. Sure there are people less well off somewhere, there are ALWAYS people less well off but misplaced sympathy will just end up giving you griefs. And who’s to say on returning to China, instead of getting the death by thousand cuts, he may not just get a little bruised up for his trouble while busy preparing for his next attempt.

June 10, 2005 @ 12:50 am | Comment

Please keep the word “racism” out of this debate.

June 10, 2005 @ 2:01 am | Comment

The snalkeheads aren’t known for their compassion and sentimentality. If they don’t get paid, I think they will kill — if not, everyone would know they could be taken advantage of. I don’t really know, and I understand all the legal issues making it unlikely he’ll stay in the US. I still feel compassion for him and know that if he was willing to bash his own head in he must be pretty damned scared.

June 10, 2005 @ 7:38 am | Comment

Is there any way that we can help the kid??

June 10, 2005 @ 9:03 pm | Comment

I think he’s going to make it, despite what my friend Contrad says. It looks like he may end up in the US — see my latest update post. At least there is hope.

June 10, 2005 @ 9:18 pm | Comment

I feel compassion sure but Conrad’s right, he collaborated with criminals and he got caught, his plan failed. Obviously, the next II from China will say the same and I’m not comfortable with any legal legal precedent being made.

If the developed world attracted a few hundred illegal Chinese immigrants per year, it wouldn’t be a big problem but the number is in the tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands.

Conrad, anybody, how many Chinese II’s flee China in any one year?

I also beleive that if the kid was sent back to China, he wouldn’t be so stupid as to return to Fujian.

There are millions of Chinese (I personally know this via my work) who have fake ID’s made and are living and working under a false name in China.

With minimal effort, the kid could disappear into obscurity and nobody would find him.

I’m afraid that’s a fact.

June 11, 2005 @ 4:53 am | Comment

John, I really understand what you and Conrad are saying and harbor no illusions. I simply hope the kid ends up staying in America, that’s all. His story actually made it onto National Public Radio today, which means his situation is in the hearts of a lot of Americans. From a PR perspective, he’s now got the upper hand. From a legal perspective, he may not be so fortunate, but I’m hoping.

June 11, 2005 @ 8:37 pm | Comment

Wrong, Conrad.

To qualify for political asylum, a person must show there’s a reasonable possibility that in the country of proposed removal the individual will be:

1) persecuted on account of his or her race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion


2) tortured, as defined in the Convention Against Torture and as modified by the United States law.

#2 makes no qualifications about ethnic or political persecution.

What qualifies as torture? According to U.S. law, suffering or discrimination “by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity.”

According to the alleged facts, a reasonable possibility exists that Zheng would face torture if returned to China.

June 14, 2005 @ 9:44 pm | Comment

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URL

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.