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Raid Opens Door on a Crowded House

Loudoun Finds Zoning Problems in Home of Immigrant Restaurant Workers

By Michael Laris
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 10, 2005; Page C01

Li Ping was sleeping off another late night waiting tables at King's Buffet when the banging began outside her bedroom door.

"I didn't have time to unlock it. They broke in. They carried their guns in their hands," recalled Li, 30, who said she was patted down in her pajamas and interrogated in the dining room with her 12 anxious, bed-headed housemates, most of whom also worked at King's.

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The Tuesday morning raid on a split-level brick house in Sterling by four federal agents, six sheriff's deputies and two Loudoun County officials resulted from a neighbor alleging a zoning infraction.

"Occupancy is over 16 people who are not of the same family!" the complaint read.

The harried scene ended after zoning officials counted beds and measured room sizes, and after Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents took four illegal Chinese immigrants -- all cooks at King's -- into custody wearing handcuffs and leg shackles. A co-owner of the house said two were later released pending a hearing. The other housemates were cleared after showing agents their U.S. passports or visas and headed into work late in the white van that shuttles them back and forth.

Loudoun officials said the unusual search represented an effort to address growing complaints about large groups of people seeking cheap -- though potentially unsafe -- housing by packing into homes and apartments meant for one family. It is an issue officials confront throughout the Washington region.

"We have a large immigrant community working in food service and construction, and the cost of housing is very high. I wouldn't be surprised if we see more of this type of situation," said Loudoun Zoning Administrator Melinda Artman. "We certainly want to show the public we're working on their behalf, and we're responsive."

But the raid and detentions also opened a rare, and not entirely welcome, window into the private struggles and often harrowing histories of immigrants from southeastern China's Fujian province, many of whom labor to keep strip malls across the United States full of cheap Chinese food.

"They're pursuing the American dream," said L. Ling-chi Wang, an Asian American studies professor at the University of California at Berkeley who was born in Fujian.

Although it was unclear how the four undocumented residents of the house had entered the United States, it is common for Chinese entering illegally from Fujian to be smuggled, Wang said.

"They are willing to take that kind of risk to come over here and have a very, very tough start. They do work very, very hard and get exploited a lot," he said.

The remaining residents said they were in the country legally, often through programs that favor relatives of U.S. citizens.

Immigrants from Fujian frequently find their way to a host of employment agencies on or near East Broadway in New York's Chinatown. They respond to low-wage job postings from an expanding universe of eateries outside the historic hubs of New York and California in such places as Virginia, where competition is less fierce, said Ko-lin Chin, an expert on Chinese immigration and organized crime at Rutgers University. Often, housing and transportation are part of the deal.

"They say there are only two things in their life. In the daytime, there are stoves. In the nighttime, there are pillows. That's it," Chin said. "They live a very isolated life in the U.S."


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