In Patrick Keefe’s saga of The Snakehead, it’s the migrants and refugees scoffing at our immigration rules, and breaking them at risk of their lives, who pose the moral challenge to those of us who got here the easy way – that is, were born here. How many of us would take the route they’ve chosen, through Hell, to call ourselves Americans? Are we missing something about the allure of our country?
“What is it about this place?” as painter-storyteller Maira Kalman put it in her New York Times blog the other day, about this adopted country of hers that welcomes nearly a million new citizens every year. “Whose home is this?”
Patrick Radden Keefe, reporter at large for the New Yorker, recounts the story of a single human brokerage in The Snakehead. “An epic tale of the Chinatown underworld and the American dream,” in Keefe’s subtitle, it is a great summer read that wakes you screaming from the buried immigration nightmare. It begins in a sort of shipwreck of a tramp steamer, Golden Venture, and mass drownings off the Rockaway Peninsula on New York’s Long Island in June, 1993. It ends in long prison sentences and deportations for the survivors. But the insistent theme music under all of it is the unconquerable drive that thousands, maybe millions, feel to get to America.
“Snakehead” means people-trafficker. Sister Peng in her Chinatown variety shop and bank was the mother of all snakeheads. The FBI and immigration cops hounded her for a decade before Judge Michael Mukasey in 2006 put her away for 35 years. Today, her standing in China’s Fujian province and on the fringes of Chinatown, Patrick Keefe suggests, is something like Harriet Tubman‘s of Underground Railroad fame in African-America. Justice and morality have all been double-reversed and trashed before the tale is all told, but something in the glowing torch of Miss Liberty in New York harbor has won the day.
There is no question that there is a kind of magic out there… What we want to be is this beacon of liberty and opportunity. We boast about it, and I think we all, to some extent, congratulate ourselves for it. And then we’re puzzled that we have 12 million illegal immigrants and more coming every year. Which seems rather bizarre to me: I mean, of course we do.
For me the really striking thing, and the question, the sort of humbling and troubling question was: what does it mean to be a citizen, really? Is it a piece of paper? Is it that you own property here, that you pay taxes, that you fight for your country? I wonder if there is not a way of thinking about it, to some extent, as: what kind of sacrifices did you make to be here?
And this, for me, was the issue with the Golden Venture passengers, for people like Sean Chen. Sean is still not a legal immigrant in the United States; he is still not a permanent resident. He works as a bartender outside of Philadelphia today. He doesn’t take planes anywhere, because he’d rather drive across the country than have to be confronted by officials at airports who want to see his documents. And I think about what he’s gone through. And it’s something that I know, without a shadow of a doubt, I couldn’t go through. And it does seem cruel and unusual, and also kind of perverse, that this guy, who to my mind has earned it, and is American, is not allowed to be, doesn’t have that piece of paper.
Patrick Radden Keefe in conversation with Chris Lydon, New York and Providence, September 4, 2009.