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June 1999, Volume 6, Number 6

Chinese to Pacific Islands

Guam Governor Carl Gutierrez in May 1999 called the arrival of several thousand Chinese migrants in the past few months "a crisis of national concern." There are 600 Chinese in custody in Guam, and an estimated 2,000 illegal Chinese among the 140,000 residents of Guam. It normally takes a week for Chinese from Fuijan province to sail to Guam; smugglers charge them $20,000 to $30,000 each. Another 3,000 to 4,000 Chinese migrants are expected over the next several months, after the trade winds abate.

Guam is governed by US immigration law, which means that once Chinese migrants reach Guam, they can apply for asylum. The nearby Northern Mariana Islands has its own immigration laws. The US government has therefore ordered the Coast Guard to intercept boatloads of Chinese headed for Guam and detain them in the Marianas. On April 17, 1999 President Clinton authorized the detention of most Chinese on Tinian, one of the Northern Mariana Islands north of Guam.

In 1996, Congress created 1,000 refugee/asylum slots a year for foreigners who claim to be persecuted by their government's coercive family planning laws. Many of the Chinese apprehended on US territory apply for asylum, claiming persecution under China's law limiting most couples to one child. According to some experts, this provision of US law has helped Chinese smugglers, since they can advise clients that, if caught in the US, they can apply for asylum.

The Global Survival Network in May 1999 called on the US government to crack down on human smuggling in Saipan, the main island of the Northern Marianas. In January 1999, a class action lawsuit was filed on behalf of 50,000 current and former garment workers seeking to hold 18 major U.S. retailers responsible for a "racketeering conspiracy" to produce clothing in sweatshop conditions in Saipan. Legislation is pending that would require the Marianas to abide by federal immigration and labor laws in order to continue to put "Made in U.S.A." labels on the clothing sewn there.

Under a 1976 covenant with the United States, the Marianas has its own minimum wage, now $3.05 an hour, and is exempt from federal immigration laws. The $1 billion clothing industry has imported 38,000 workers, mostly women from the Philippines and China; the foreigners outnumber the 27,000 native islanders and other U.S. citizens, who have a 16 percent unemployment rate. Many of the guest workers pay recruiters to get their jobs, which means they arrive in debt.

William Branigin, " Human Rights Group Urges Action on Saipan," Washington Post, May 24, 1999. William Branigin, "Smugglers Use Guam as Back Door to US," Washington Post, May 7, 1999.