Countless Chinese arrived illegally in America with the help of the notorious Sister Ping, the eponymous subject of Patrick Radden Keefe's The Snakehead (Reviews, May 11).
What first attracted you to the story of Sister Ping?
She seemed like such a fascinating, brilliant, roguish character, and a Horatio Alger—style immigrant success story who, for all her crimes, remains revered in Chinatown. The way in which she both nurtured and exploited the immigrant community in Chinatown kept reminding me of The Godfather, and I thought I could tell a broader story about the globalization of crime by writing about the rise and fall of Sister Ping. There was a great narrative in the voyage of the Golden Venture, a ship of immigrants that ran aground off Queens in 1993. The ship brought together all of the characters I wanted to write about: Sister Ping's role in the operation, the FBI agents who pursued her around the world after the shipwreck, the gangster she collaborated with who eventually betrayed her and the immigrants who risked their lives to come to America in the hold of the ship.
Did people who had entered the country illegally resist being interviewed for fear of being deported?
My research was difficult insofar as I often had to overcome the impression that the white guy with a notebook knocking at your door cannot be a good thing. Some people were very stoic and understandably paranoid, and didn't want to go into their stories at great length. But others were almost burning to explain the risks they took to get here, to show me pictures of their American-born children, to demonstrate that in their own way they were just as American as I was. Almost more so, considering the price they paid to be here.
Have the immigration policies of the U.S. changed in the aftermath of incidents like the Golden Venture?
The Golden Venture was the first big case in which immigrants who arrived in America asking for asylum were jailed, but now that's the norm. Immigration detention is the fastest growing type of incarceration in America. That was supposed to serve as a deterrent, but it hasn't really worked. There continues to be a demand in this country for cheap, tax-free laborers willing to do jobs that most Americans consider beneath them, even in the face of skyrocketing unemployment. The combination of economic demand and the freedoms available in America creates a siren song that continues to lure people to this country.