Cheng Chui Ping, “Mother Of All Snakeheads”, Dies: Villain Or Hero?

Cheng Chui PingThis grandmother sold tickets to a better life. Sorry about the prison term.

From the NYT: A Smuggler of Immigrants Dies in Prison, but Is Praised in Chinatown

(See previous posts on immigration)

The Gentleman Economist has yet to be persuaded that some types of immigrants should be “illegal” while others are welcomed. How can a civilized society partition its hardworking, taxpaying, law abiding immigrants into two classes, heralding one and hunting the other?

Until the 1870’s there were essentially no immigration controls anywhere. Everyone was allowed to travel as they pleased and became a de facto citizen wherever they put down roots.

Those who would control their citizens always create a new name for the criminalization of otherwise innocent activities, such as “trafficking”, “smuggling” or “money laundering”. Hiding in the shadows means high prices and sometimes cutting corners; before you know it you might find yourself signing a $20,000 note to board a leaky vessel in Fujian, bound for better opportunities.

In 1993, one of these vessels, The Golden Venture, turned up in distress off New York City. The ensuing spectacle gripped the nation.

Prosecutors and the press needed a villain and Cheng Chui Ping, a successful Chinatown arranger of similar “undocumented” migration journeys, met the requirements. Arrested in Hong Kong in 2000, extradited to the U.S. and convicted in 2006, she died this week after spending her last days in a federal prison in Texas. Upon hearing the news, many in New York praised her kindness and success at bringing thousands to better lives in the U.S.

The Gentleman Economist knows an illegal immigrant from Brazil who got off a plane in San Francisco one morning, proceeded to the Mission District where for $50 he took advantage of while-you-wait service to acquire a California Driver’s License and immigration documents (this is America; if you’re going to be “undocumented”, there’s no reason to actually lack documents). He also picked up a cell phone and a dial-around discount card for calling Brazil. He then went to a local restaurant where he was hired on the spot and then worked an eight hour shift before catching a ride to a pre-arranged couch where he finally went to sleep. He was back at work the next day and making payroll tax contributions within the week.

Really, America? This is the kind of person you wish to drive from your shores?

If one thinks of all the places one could have been born in this world, and the place where one is living now, there’s no ethical argument for preventing free migration. These laws are fueled by xenophobic voters, nativist political parties and the politicians who pander to them.

Even the dangers of the journeys – no doubt enhanced by their illegality – don’t justify trapping industrious people behind national borders for life. It’s true that before their rescue and detention by immigration authorities, ten passengers aboard The Golden Venture drowned. But some two dozen astronauts and cosmonauts have died on their journeys-of-a-lifetime. It doesn’t mean we stop going; it means we put more resources into safety.

Here’s a temporary workaround: For those willing to give up everything, including their previous lives and all their savings, and brave a treacherous ocean journey to come to your country, from China, or Cuba, or anywhere else, haven’t they already passed the most practical and discerning citizenship test of all? They should be given immigration papers and work permits right there on the beach along with a cab ride into town; we can be confident they’ll be working tomorrow, paying taxes next week and speaking English within months. Great nations have been built by industrious risk-takers like this.


“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
-Inscription on the Statue of Liberty

Welcome to New York. Just make sure you’re politically favored before you try to test our tolerance.

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