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By Cookie B. Micaller

TINIAN, Northern Mariana Islands (April 19, 1999 - Saipan Tribune)---Their hands bound with flexicuffs, 147 weary Chinese men and women, many clad in slippers, were led off an old boat, on which they were loaded after an unsuccessful attempt to sneak into Guam last week.

Fully-armed police stood guard at the exit points of a fenced portion of San Jose Harbor, as doctors, nurses and customs men in surgical masks and gloves waited to screen the Chinese walking down the gangplank on Tinian Saturday.

The 120-foot fishing boat -- manned by 12 crewmen of the U.S. Coast Guard's Sassafras -- pulled in around 12:30 p.m. after more than two days of travel. Its passengers were kept in the ship's hold, but five rowdy Chinese were handcuffed and isolated from the rest.

At the dock, the illegal immigrants, believed to be from Fujian province, were frisked and their possessions confiscated before they were led to tents set up by officials. They were served with bottled water.

Half of them were seasick, and one was detected to be more seriously ill, according to sources from Tinian. The Chinese were not told that they were headed for Tinian to avoid trouble.

The Chinese are being temporarily held at the dock and will be bused to Northfield, a former U.S. military base, once the tent city is established. Interpreters, including three loaned by the Tinian Dynasty Hotel and Casino, are at the site to help immigration personnel interview the illegals.

Reports say the Coast Guard was on routine patrol the middle of last week when it was ordered to intercept the Chinese boat as it sailed toward Guam from international waters, about 80 miles from the island.

In recent weeks, such interceptions in the dangerously rough waters off Guam and the CNMI have increased as many Chinese attempt to escape harsh economic conditions in their homeland.

U.S. and local authorities have begun to tighten their watch on surrounding waters to block the boatloads of illegal Chinese immigrants, many of them believed to be victims of human smuggling syndicates. Previous past reports said many of those caught told Guam authorities that they paid between $5,000 and $8,000 to go to Guam.

"There has been an increase in the number of people trying to enter Guam recently. We have to guard all the entry points here or else we'll see an influx of illegal immigrants," said one official who declined to be identified.

Over the last two weeks, Hagatna has been swamped with illegal immigrants from mainland China that has strained government coffers and infrastructure.

The other day, 105 more Chinese were reported arrested in the neighboring island bringing the number of total arrests of illegal immigrants to over 500 in less than two weeks, more than the number the facilities can accommodate. According to Guam, it spends about $97 a day per individual in hosting the illegals.

Officials from CNMI and the Immigration and Naturalization Service refused to answer media questions, saying all queries should be directed to the INS office in Washington D.C.

Several sources from Tinian who spoke on condition of anonymity said the local government agreed to host the Chinese temporarily on condition that the federal government shoulders all the expenses while the return of these illegal immigrants to China is being arranged.

About 100 CNMI police and customs and immigration personnel, as well as nurses and doctors, have been mobilized for the mission, while 17 officials from INS Guam and Honolulu flew in to Tinian to augment the local team.

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