The aliens, all aged 18 to 25, were detained Thursday in what the INS said was an attempt to smuggle an unusually large number of people into the country. Eighty-one of the men are being held at Fulton County Jail, and the other 51, all considered juveniles, are being held at the DeKalb County Jail, reports CBS Affiliate WTOC-TV in Savannah.
"This was a very sophisticated ring," said Tom Fischer, district director for the INS in Atlanta. "I have never in my 23 years with INS seen anything this large or sophisticated."
Authorities said the Chinese were crammed into a 50-by-50 foot compartment in the bow of the Prince Nicolas, a ship registered in Cyprus to Cosmomar Shipping. The maze-like holding area was divided into individual compartments about 2 feet wide, 3 feet long and 6 feet high, each with a hole connecting it to the next compartment.
The compartments, enough for each alien, had electric fans and were reportedly littered with empty water bottles, soda cans, food wrappers and clothing.
"This was built to carry human cargo," said Fred Alexander, deputy INS director in Atlanta. "This is a 20th century version of a 17th century slave ship."
The men were found aboard the 40,000-ton ship that docked in Savannah Wednesday night. The ship's only other cargo was 27,000 tons of pig iron, Fischer said.
The ship's 28 crew members, including 26 from China, were taken into custody for questioning. They face charges of harboring illegal immigrants, conspiracy to harbor illegal immigrants and transportation of illegal immigrants.
The Chinese were carrying large sums of American money and probably paid thousands of dollars to get on the ship, Alexander said. He said the smugglers could have earned half a million dollars on the trip.
Officials were tipped off about the smugglers about two weeks ago when the vessel's second officer jumped ship in Sweden and notified authorities, said INS Special Agent Kevin Keefe.
Coast Guard officials boarded the Prince Nicolas about nine miles off the coast Wednesday, but found nothing. The ship docked that night at the Ocean Terminal of the Georgia Ports Authority.
After receiving more detailed information, the Coast Guard reboarded the ship Thursday, said Chief Petty Officer Scott Taylor, an investigator with the Marine Safety Office. They found a hatch leading to the holding tank that had been bolted from the inside and welded shut.
The Prince Nicolas had traveled from Denmark through the Baltic Sea, across the Atlantic Ocean and to Savannah, Fischer said. Its next port call was scheduled in Georgetown, S.C.
Any requests by the Chinese for politial asylum would be considered on a case-by-case basis, he said.
"It is a possibility," Fischer said. "No one has yet ... mentioned that or brought it up."