WASHINGTON -- When 151 Chinese men came ashore on Haiti's southwest coast before dawn on Sunday, startling residents at a beach resort, they had sailed for more than a month from port to port halfway around the world in a small fishing boat, a U.S. immigration official said yesterday.
Their ordeal was described by the official, Bruce J. Nicholl of the Immigration and Naturalization Service's anti-smuggling unit, as the first convincing evidence of a new pattern in a multimillion-dollar business of trafficking illegal immigrants operated by gangs in Hong Kong and major U.S. cities.
Hundreds of illegal Chinese immigrants have been found by the immigration service to have been taken over the last year to Hawaii and the West Coast, where they then disappear into U.S. cities. A large part of the problem is that small detention centers at airports and seaports are often overcrowded.
The appearance of the shipload of migrants in Haiti has convinced officials that the trade is now shifting to the U.S. East Coast, where it may be easier to slip large numbers of illegal immigrants into busy port cities undetected.
No less startling, the officials traced the journey of the ship from China to Mauritius in the Indian Ocean and then to Cape Town, South Africa, from where it sailed across the South Atlantic to Brazil and finally to Haiti.
"Trafficking in human beings is turning out to be as profitable as drug trafficking," Mr. Nicholl said. "If the gangs continue to be successful, we're going to have a very serious problem."
He said that many of the illegal Chinese immigrants, who pay exorbitant fees for the risky voyage, are provided with fraudulent papers after they land allowing them to seek political asylum under an order President Bush issued three years ago after the repression of the democracy movement in China.
The order, intended to cover students and others who might be at risk if they returned, allows Chinese in the United States on that date to remain through 1993.
"Up to 80,000 illegal immigrants could benefit from this," Mr. Nicholl said. "One of the first things many of them do when they arrive is pick up phony documents, saying they were here before June 5, 1989, the date of the presidential order."
U.S. officials said they began tracking the ship that dropped off 151 Chinese men in Haiti soon after it entered the Taiwan Straits off the coast of China's Fujian Province, where the men were apparently picked up.
"It was a Taiwanese trawler, 100 to 150 feet long," Mr. Nicholl said. "It was an oceangoing ship, but not for these human conditions."
Haitians fleeing their island homeland for the United States sometimes cram the same number of people onto a boat half that size, but the voyage they face is often very brief because U.S. Coast Guard cutters patrol the area off Haiti, 600 miles from Florida.
The Taiwanese trawler sailed into the Indian Ocean instead of across the Pacific, and headed for Mauritius, where the crew tried unsuccessfully to buy food and water for their human cargo, Mr. Nicholl said. He said the Mauritius government planned to take the Chinese into custody and send them home, but the ship sailed away.
The trawler stopped next in Cape Town, and again tried to take on supplies. It then crossed the South Atlantic to Brazil, where, Mr. Nicholl said, it was provisioned just north of Rio de Janeiro.
At that point, he added, it was also refueled at sea by a tanker apparently leased by the smuggling gang -- an indication that the group had a significant amount of money to spend.
From Rio, the trawler apparently made its way to the Haitian coast. By then the 151 men had been at sea in cramped conditions for between 35 and 40 days, Mr. Nicholl said. He added that informants along the route had provided U.S. officials with the information they needed to piece together the story of the voyage.
"It was all orchestrated by triads, gangs based here or in Hong Kong, though the money and brains are usually in Hong Kong," he said. "They have a multi-hundred-million dollar business going."