Special Report

NYC Chinatown Donorgate Under-Covered

Did the Clinton campaign financially benefit from the on-going plight of illegal, smuggled Chinese immigrants?

By 11.2.07

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To date, here's how major newspapers have covered the NYC Chinatown Donorgate story:

October 19: The Los Angeles Times reported that the Clinton campaign received $380,000 from poor Chinese living in largely ethnic New York City neighborhoods -- one is heavily populated by "recent immigrants from Fujian Province." One-third of 150 donors could not be located; many gave false addresses. Other donors found and interviewed gave varying motives for their contributions. "Many said they gave to Clinton because they were instructed to do so by local association leaders." Some cited an interest in immigration issues. One donor was proud to have had his picture taken with Mrs. Clinton -- he sent it home to China.

October 20: New York Times reporter Patrick Healy, in "Clinton Returned $7,000, Campaign Said," wrote that the campaign staff had "identified the concerns about the Chinatown fund-raising on its own," and had already returned seven separate $1,000 donations. (Really, to whom? Those the L.A. Times couldn't find? And only seven?) Healy quoted campaign spokesman Howard Wolfson -- "Asian-Americans in Chinatown and Flushing have the same right to contribute as every other American." (Who said they didn't?)

October 22: The message of the Washington Post's editorial, "Dishwashers for Clinton," is reflected in its subtitle -- "Once again, a zeal for campaign cash trumps common sense." It's just another instance, as with Norman Hsu, of carelessness born of zeal. The Post states that, "In the case of seven $1,000 contributions, donors did not respond, and their checks were returned, according to the campaign." (How do you return checks to those who don't respond?) The Post repeated Wolfson's statement and recommended the campaign tighten its vetting process. (Tighten again?)

And that's it...so far. But, there are other factors to consider in this story.

The three tenement addresses of missing donors highlighted by the L.A. Times fit in a box roughly 100 by 200 yards within a neighborhood, inside Manhattan's Chinatown, heavily populated by immigrants from the Fujian Province of the Peoples Republic of China (PRC). Fuzhou is the province's main city.

The "International Crime Threat Assessment" (Dec. 2000), generated by a U.S. Government interagency working group made up of several federal law enforcement and intelligence agencies, stated that, "Fujian Province is a major base for operations for criminal brokers known as 'snakeheads' who, using contacts around the world, orchestrate the movement of illegal Chinese immigrants to the United States, Canada, Europe, Latin America, Asia, and Australia." A map of Fujian Province is featured on the cover of an August 2004 report entitled "Characteristics of Chinese Human Smugglers" issued by the U.S. Department of Justice.

In a 2001 article entitled "From Fujian to New York: Understanding the New Chinese Immigration" (posted on a U.S. Department of State website), authors Zai Liang and Wenzhen Ye write that "...most of the recent undocumented Chinese immigrants have come from rural Fujian and have mainly settled in the New York metropolitan area." The authors add, "Furthermore, there has been a heavy concentration of Fujianese immigrants in some sections of Manhattan's Chinatown; for example, some have called East Broadway "Fuzhou Street."

One story of Fujianese smuggled into the U.S. by "snakeheads" became public on June 6, 1993 when the tramp freighter, Golden Venture, ran aground off Queens with 286 emaciated Chinese abroad. Ten drowned. On March 16, 2006 Cheng Chui Ping, the snakehead who ran the smuggling enterprise, was sentenced to 35 years in prison. In his April 24, 2006 article in the New Yorker magazine entitled "The Snakehead," Patrick Radden Keefe told the Golden Venture story and noted Ms. Cheng's address as 47 East Broadway -- it's in the box. Keefe wrote, "While ships no longer deposit smuggled Fujianese directly on U.S. shores, officials say that there is no evidence to indicate that the total number of Fujianese entering the country illegally has diminished in the years since the Golden Venture incident." They are still coming.

Peter Kwong, Professor of Asian American Studies, Urban Affairs and Planning at Hunter College, Manhattan, is an expert on the fate of Fujianese immigrants smuggled into the U.S. He used the word "trap" to describe the ethnic enclaves where they settle. "Not only are the immigrants doomed to perpetual subcontracted employment, but the social and political control of these enclaves in also subcontracted to ethnic elites, who are free to set their own legal and labor standards for the entire community without ever coming under the scrutiny of U.S. authorities....After arrival in the United States, they are forced to work for years under what amounts to indentured servitude to pay off large 'transportation' debts with constant threats of torture, rape, and kidnapping."

The Department of Justice study estimates total fees assessed each smuggled immigrant to be $50,000-$60,000. As was done by Ms. Cheng, Chinese street gangs, in her case the Fuk Ching gang, are often hired to enforce fee collections.

It's not unreasonable to suspect that the missing donors directed by community "associations" to give to the Clinton campaign are illegal Chinese immigrants smuggled into the U.S. by snakeheads who continue to wield control over them.

Did all the donors use their own money, or were some straw donors who were given money to donate? What do those who may have facilitated the violation of federal campaign laws hope to gain? Is their motive connected to the emerging struggle between Pro-PRC and Pro-Taiwan influences in major Chinatowns across the U.S.? What sort of influence might the unnamed "associations" hope to leverage concerning immigration policy?

These, and other questions, remain under-covered by the major newspapers who reported the Chinatown Donorgate story.

Meanwhile, Howard Wolfson played the Asian race card. Was that an effort to deflect attention away from what may be the real underlying race issue of this story? Namely, did the Clinton campaign financially benefit from the on-going plight of illegal Chinese immigrants? To assume that the campaign staff was unaware of the scope of odd donations requires what a politician once called "a willing suspension of disbelief."

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About the Author

Lee Cary is a writer in North Texas.