Pursuing the American Dream

Rural areas and small towns such as Columbia are increasingly becoming the destination for
illegal immigrants.
Sunday, February 27, 2005 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 10:54 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

To our readers: The Missourian has a stringent policy prohibiting the use of anonymous sources. For this story, however, the risks to some of our sources were too high. Xu Liping, Yang Lei and Lian Weihua are not real names. Read more about the reporting of this story.

When Yang Lei paid black market smugglers to take him from his native village in China’s Fujian province to America in 1992, he wasn’t looking for fame or fortune. He was just looking to be left alone.

As part owner in a brick-making cooperative and the father of two young sons in a country that only allowed one, Yang felt harassed by financial pressures, social pressures and political pressures.

He’d watched as friends and fellow villagers began trickling off to America, and he couldn’t help but notice the steady stream of money and success stories that had started flowing back from them. Yang’s mother began pressing him to follow suit, but he knew that, as a Chinese peasant who’d only finished middle school, he lacked the education, English language ability and marketable skills required to make it to America legitimately.

But, as money got tighter and the demands of local officials for monetary “gifts” grew more frequent, Yang began to reconsider. He resented having to line people’s pockets in order to overlook his second son and keep his factory properly licensed.

“It was too much, always having to use the back door, always having to pay to get things done,” Yang said. And so he began to consider going to America the way most peasants did — illegally.

Yang’s wife, Xu Liping, dug in her heels. With two small children, the price was too high and the trip too dangerous for the whole family, and she didn’t want Yang to go alone.

“I had many fights with him,” Xu said. “I would never have let him go. I didn’t want to be separated.”

But in the end, Yang craved a life in which hard work rather than bribery would bring success. He wanted something better than a subsistence life for his family. That fulfilling these desires meant purchasing his way out of China from a local “snakehead,” or smuggler, for $30,000, is an irony that seems to escape him.

To come up with the snakehead’s fee, which exceeded his lifetime salary several times over, Yang borrowed the cash from his wealthy brother-in-law. In return he received a complete set of falsified documents that got him on an airplane and through U.S. customs.

In the spring of 1992, he arrived alone in New York City. Eight years later, his wife and children joined him, and they now own their own buffet restaurant in the Columbia area.

A better life?

A story like Yang’s might be expected on the streets of New York City’s Chinatown, but it’s increasingly common in the cities and small towns of mid-Missouri, too. In the decade from 1990 to 2000, Missouri’s unauthorized resident population grew from an estimated 8,000 to 22,000 people, and some experts speculate that the actual figure is substantially higher.

The INS estimates that there are currently about nine million illegal immigrants in the country, and the number is growing by up to a half million each year.

The majority come from Mexico and Latin America, but a growing number of Chinese, Indians and Koreans are joining their ranks. Together, Latin America and Asia account for 80 percent of all illegal immigration.

Yang said no matter whether they come to seek political refuge or pursue the American Dream, most of the Chinese who come illegally hope for a better life with more opportunities.

However, many do not find what they’re looking for — at least not right away. For example, a study funded by the MacArthur Foundation in 2000 found that in Chicago 70 percent of those working without green cards were employed in sweatshop conditions, in which two or more wage, overtime, environmental or safety rules were being violated.

For Yang, life in America wasn’t easy.

A friend recommended him to the owner of a Chinese restaurant in Colorado, and he had soon moved there and was working in the kitchen up to 14 hours a day, six days a week. Overtime pay did not exist. Instead, his employer provided him room, board and transportation to and from the restaurant.

Lian Weihua, a business manager in the Boone County area who has worked in Chinese firms around the country, said that long hours and low pay in exchange for room and board is very common here and back on the Chinese mainland. Although difficult to accept by American standards, she said it works because it is mutually beneficial to both parties — restaurants need cheap labor, and illegal newcomers need total support.

But the biggest pressure for undocumented workers comes from living as a “black market” citizen with no identity and no idea when or how legal status will come — and in constant fear of being caught, Yang said.

“In general, people like this are struggling, and every day’s a risk for them because at any moment they could lose it all and they could be sent back,” said Stephen Blower, a Columbia immigration attorney.

Because smugglers demand full payment as soon as the immigrant is “delivered” in America, those, like Yang, who have a rich family member, face somewhat less pressure because they are able to borrow the money to pay the smugglers and then gradually pay back their relative.

Those who do not have a backer usually borrow the money from private, loan-shark type investors who charge high interest and may, at any time, suddenly demand full payment from family members still living in China. For these migrants, getting discovered and sent back to China would be devastating, because the loan sharks would still need to be paid. It would be nearly impossible for the debtor to pay back such a large sum of money with normal Chinese earnings.

“It’s a life of constant risk,” Blower said. “It’s sad.”

Immigration blues

Liu Qian is an epidemiologist with the Missouri Department of Health who did doctoral work at MU in rural sociology. He said that although Chinese immigrants in the United States can make far more money than they did back home, their lives are often worse than before. People come willing to suffer and knowing that there will be dangers, but Liu said most do not fully understand the extent of the difficulties they will face.

“Many underestimate the hardship because the information coming back from the U.S. is always the good news,” he said. Chinese immigrants often hide their sufferings from friends and family back home because they do not want them to worry, he said.

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[see full size image] Top homelands of illegal immigrants

Although the plight of undocumented workers has received a fair amount of attention in the United States in recent years, Blower said Americans tend to overestimate the life led by immigrants, and worry that they are taking jobs away from U.S. citizens who want them and living well on illegal work and federal benefits.

“They can’t show up and get benefits,” he said. “They’re not eligible for them, and they’d get deported if they got found out.”

“It’s a myth to suggest that everyone’s living on easy street by exploiting weaknesses in the law, because that’s not true,” he said. “Most of the people I’m aware of are oppressed by these situations.”

Yang said that without language skills, migrants have no contact with the outside world and are completely dependent on their employer to provide for every aspect of their lives.

“It’s true you can make more money than in China, but what kind of life do you have?” Lian said. “I would say it’s like a prison. You can’t speak the language, you can’t drive, so where can you go and what can you do?”

A failing system

In recent years, increased attention has been drawn to the issue of human smuggling by several international incidents in which groups of illegal immigrants died on the way to their destination. In 2000,

58 Chinese died during a sweltering trip in the back of a truck taking them into England. In Texas in 2003, 19 people died in a tractor-trailer jammed with more than 70 illegal immigrants.

On top of concerns raised by Sept. 11, U.S. border controls are under greater scrutiny than ever. Xu says snakehead fees for illegal entry have correspondingly risen in recent years, but the new $70,000 price tag hasn’t seemed to deter people. In the last six months alone, she said, three members of her family have paid to come through Mexico where they were then smuggled across the border and deposited in New York City.

Yang said once undocumented workers are safely in New York, it is relatively easy for them to make their way to smaller cities across the nation since some businesses hire their employees directly from New York City agencies. In such cases, it is up to the business owner to specify that the workers must be legal, he said.

Blower said he doesn’t find the local increase in undocumented workers surprising because the state’s immigrant population as a whole has grown in recent years. Nationally, immigrants are moving away from traditional hotspots, such as Texas, California and New York, and coming to the Midwest.

The real crisis is not how to stem the tide of illegal immigration, but how to revamp the nation’s immigration system, which, he says, is “fundamentally flawed and broken.” The goal ought to be to allow access to foreign workers who want to contribute to the economy and are willing to perform jobs that are not being filled by American workers, he said.

“If somebody comes here not in order to exploit the law or break the law or continue to perpetrate crimes in our society, but they want to work legitimately, contribute to society and become part of the participatory government we have, then those people ought to be encouraged,” he said.

Today many industries rely heavily on the low-paid undocumented workforce to supply its labor. In a U.S. Department of Labor National Agricultural Worker Survey taken in 1999, for example, 52 percent of all seasonal agricultural workers identified themselves as unauthorized to work in the United States. Undocumented workers make up a growing portion of laborers in industries such as construction, meat packing, child care and janitorial services as well.

Right now, Blower said, for those who wish to become legal, the process is long and arduous, with no guarantee of success. Those who have no means by which to change their status often stay in the shadows for decades, without access to health care, insurance and other social services or support.

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[see full size image] The Immigration Maze

Last fall, legislation was introduced in Congress that would effectively grant amnesty to all illegal immigrants who have been living and working in the United States for more than five years. Similar legislation was passed in 1986, allowing more than a million immigrants without documentation to become legal green card holders.

While President Bush opposes measures that would automatically put illegal immigrants on a fast-track to citizenship, he has called for a “more compassionate” system that would give undocumented workers legal status as temporary workers, and provide legal channels for immigrants who come to fill jobs that Americans do not want.

Immigration issues remain hotly contested and largely emotional, however, and legislation calling for stricter immigration control is also in the works. Bill H.R. 418, which is designed to stem the flow of illegal aliens, was approved by the House earlier this month, and now moves to the Senate where it faces tougher opposition.

According to Ken Troske, associate professor of economics at MU, the heart of the debate centers on whether or not the influx of immigrants hurts America’s economy.

In his opinion, rather than taking away jobs from U.S. citizens, low-paid immigrants — both legal and illegal — increase productivity by making services such as lawn care and repair work affordable to people who would otherwise do it themselves and by doing jobs that would otherwise be done by machine.

In other cases, he said, the country has two choices: to bring in workers from places like Mexico and China to do the work here, or move the industries and the jobs to those countries.

“Missouri is better off if the production is done here,” he said. That way, he said, the workers get paid and spend in our local economy.

Although entering the country without inspection is a criminal act, remaining here once in the country is only a civil violation for unlawful presence. Blower says that most who enter without inspection are not criminals; they go to such lengths because the current system does not allow them to get a visa legally.

He argues that illegally crossing a border is a political rather than moral issue.

“It’s like deciding to drive on the right rather than the left,” he said. “There’s no inherent moral value of doing one over the other — it’s just that we happen to have a law that for the sake of order we insist people drive on the right. The same thing can be argued for immigration.”

Is it worth it?

In the end, it took eight years for Yang to get a green card that allowed him to leave the country with the assurance that he could return.

His commitment to helping his family rise out of poverty kept him going during those long, hard years alone in America, he said. Although his starting salary of $800 a month was low by U.S. standards, it translated into years of income in his village back home. The restaurant provided room and board and he had few other expenses, Yang said, so he was able to send almost all his money back to his family for eight years. The $30,000 loan he’d taken from his brother-in-law was paid off within five years.

When he finally was able to go back for a visit in 2000, the small children he’d left behind were teenagers going to expensive private schools in the city, and his wife and parents had built a large stand-alone home in the village.


Yang Lei cooks at the Chinese Buffet restaurant his family owns. After immigrating illegally to the United States, Yang spent a decade away from his family before receiving his green card, which allowed him to go to China with an assured return to the United States. (KIT DOYLE/ Missourian)

Soon after Yang began sending money back to the village, Xu stopped working and began to spend most of her time playing mahjong with the many other villagers whose spouses were working abroad.

“We had a very comfortable life,” Xu said. If she had known how hard Yang was working in America, she would have spent her time and money more wisely, she said. But Yang kept his hardships hidden from her.

It was only in 2001, when she and her two sons were granted green cards and the whole family was finally together in the United States, that Xu realized life in America was not the dream she had imagined. Her taste of reality began when she started working as a cashier at a Chinese restaurant in Kansas City. Two years later she and Yang were able to quit their jobs and open their own restaurant.

Although a legal green card holder and a business owner, Xu still faces many of the same difficulties undocumented workers face. She cannot speak English or drive, so she is dependent on Yang and their sons to take her places and to translate for her. She spends almost all her time at the restaurant. She says she is terribly lonely, and her only entertainment is a weekly trip to a nearby casino. She doesn’t gamble, she said, but she likes to get away from the restaurant for a change, to watch the dancing and listen to the music.

“In the past three years I’ve aged at least six years,” she said. “I had no idea it would be so hard.”

In many villages in Fujian province — where the majority of Chinese illegal immigrants are from — going to America has become a sort of cultural norm. In their village, Xu said, almost every family has at least one member living in the United States. Yang, the oldest of three brothers and two sisters, said that all his siblings are now in America, and most of Xu’s nieces and nephews are here, too.

Nowadays, Lian said, some students don’t even finish middle school but instead drop out and await the opportunity to come to America.

Yang said now he is careful never to encourage people to leave China.

“It’s not that America’s bad,” he said, “but it’s not what they think.”

What he does tell them is that it’s a place where you have to rely on your own ability. There is no back door, no special relationships with government officials and no shortcuts to count on. If you come, he tells them, be ready to work.

As soon as the family can save enough money, Xu said she’d like to return to China forever. But after 11 years of sticking it out in America and now finally owning his own place, Yang is not sure he wants to leave.

Regardless of where the family ends up, Yang is scheduled to take the exam for U.S. citizenship within the next few months. What he’s looking most forward to now is the security that citizenship will provide.

“As a U.S. citizen,” he said, “I don’t have to be afraid anymore.”

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