By Jonathan Allen
NEW YORK (Reuters) – A Malaysian man faces charges of attempting to smuggle nine Chinese illegal immigrants into the United States as passengers on board the luxury RMS Queen Mary 2 ocean liner, officials said on Monday.
The group, carrying forged Japanese passports but speaking scarcely any Japanese, was caught by immigration officials after disembarking in New York City on April 26, said John Saleh, a U.S. Customs and Border Protection officer.
Officials said it was unusual for illegal immigrants to arrive in such grand style.
"We haven't really seen this in the past because of course it is expensive. It's quite an investment just to get on this ship," Saleh said.
"If they feel we'd be less likely to suspect a high-end ship as opposed to one of the fly-by-night cruise liners, they'd use that route," he added.
According to court papers, Fatt Kwee Wong of Malaysia admitted to customs officials he was paid $3,500 each to help the five women and four men sneak into the United States.
The nine Chinese boarded as paying passengers in Dubai for their voyage on the ship, which features 14 decks with opulent dining rooms, ballrooms, theaters and even a planetarium.
Cunard Line, which operates the ship, said the case was unprecedented. "To the company's knowledge, this is a first-time occurrence," said Jackie Chase, Cunard public relations manager.
The Chinese immigrants were in custody while authorities processed their deportation.
The accused smuggler was being held in federal custody and his case was expected to go before a grand jury.