U.S. agents using welding torches and crowbars discovered 132 Chinese illegal immigrants in a secret compartment in the hold of a ship docked in Savannah, Ga., immigration officials said today.
U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service spokeswoman Sue Brown said the migrants were found by agents acting on a tip that Prince Nicholas, a ship registered in Cyprus, was smuggling illegal immigrants.
Agents boarded the ship nine miles from Savannah on Wednesday but found no sign of the migrants, Brown said. She said the agents returned a second time and still found no one.
But when the ship docked at Savannah on Thursday, INS agents armed with welding torches and crowbars were waiting. They found the Chinese in a secret compartment of the hold that had been covered with a sheet of steel and a door that had been welded in place.
All of the migrants were from China, all were male, and 51 claimed to be juveniles, Brown said.
Georgia's booming economy and low unemployment rates have led to a shortage of workers in many sectors of the economy, including agriculture. Brown said it was possible the Chinese had been promised jobs as migrant laborers.
Today, the migrants were transported to Atlanta, where Brown said they would be interviewed by agents who detained the ship's 28 crew members, who are from the Philippines, China and Lithuania.
Brown said Savannah is not known as a frequent landing site for illegal immigrants from China. According to authorities, smugglers charged the refugees as much as $50,000 to make the journey.
Brown said the ship left China weeks ago and docked in Sweden, Finland and Denmark before coming to Savannah.
She said the Chinese, many of whom were between 18 and 25, were in good condition, despite having only a faucet from which to get drinking water and a hole in the floor that served as a toilet.
The inside of the hold was fitted with a honeycomb of wooden berths stacked like crates that served as beds.