Mar 29, 2023 - Podcasts

Dangers and change at the U.S. Southern border

People from all over the world are arriving at the Southern U.S. border, including an influx of Chinese migrants and asylum seekers. Meanwhile, a deadly fire at a migrant holding facility in the Mexican border town of Ciudad Juarez broke out late Monday, killing 39 people and injuring 29 others. It’s the latest example of the dangers asylum seekers face when trying to enter the U.S.

  • Plus, fake bomb threats are used to harass China critics.

Guests: Axios' Astrid Galván, Stef Kight and Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian.

Credits: Axios Today is produced by Niala Boodhoo, Alexandra Botti, Robin Linn, Lydia McMullen-Laird, Fonda Mwangi and Alex Sugiura. Music is composed by Evan Viola. You can reach us at [email protected]. You can text questions, comments and story ideas to Niala as a text or voice memo to 202-918-4893.

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NIALA: Good morning! Welcome to Axios Today!

It’s Wednesday, March 29th.

I’m Niala Boodhoo.

Today on the show: Fake bomb threats are used to harass China critics. But first, dangers and change at the U.S. Southern border. That’s today’s One Big Thing.

Dangers and change at the U.S. Southern border

NIALA: A deadly fire at a migrant holding facility in the Mexican border town of Ciudad Juárez broke out late Monday, killing at least 40 people and injuring dozens more. It's the latest example of the dangers asylum-seekers and others face when trying to enter the U.S. at our southern border.

Axios Latino editor Astrid Galván has been following this story and joins us from El Paso. Astrid, how did this fire start?

ASTRID GALVÁN: The Mexican government says that it started when some of the migrants who were being held there, protested and lit mattresses on fire.

NIALA: What do we know about the victims?

ASTRID: Initial reports tell us that several of them were actually detained that same day, during a kind of roundup that the Mexican government did to get migrants off the streets, particularly Latin American migrants who had been either asking for money on the street or selling merchandise illegally.

NIALA: Can you tell us what the situation looks like in Ciudad Juárez right now?

ASTRID: We're increasingly seeing people from literally all over the world trying to come to the U.S. through Mexico right now. Ciudad Juárez is where probably the largest concentration of migrants and asylum seekers is. Ciudad Juárez in particular is a place that has a pretty decent infrastructure for migrant shelters and migrant support services. This is what an analyst from the Migration Policy Institute tells me. But yet, the systems are extremely overwhelmed. The city is struggling to provide services and people are getting really, really frustrated. We saw a couple weeks ago, Venezuelans tried to enter through the port of entry, like force their way through. It didn't work, but, I think this is just one example of the ways in which the pressure is mounting.

NIALA: The Biden administration has proposed policy changes for asylum seekers that should go into effect in May, Astrid. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees has urged the Biden administration not to proceed with this. Can you catch us up and let us know what's going on here?

ASTRID: Yeah, so the Biden administration announced last month that it was rolling out some new initiatives. One would bar migrants from seeking asylum if they attempted to cross the Southwest border illegally without first asking for protection in another country. This is a kind of Trump era proposal that is now being reinstated by the Biden administration. Human rights advocates have long warned that migrants who are forced to wait in Mexico instead of being able to ask for asylum in the United States face really grave dangers – kidnapping, extortion, robbery, even death.

NIALA: Axios’ Astrid Galván joining us from just across the border in El Paso. Thanks, Astrid.

ASTRID: Thank you.

NIALA: As Astrid just said migrants from all over the world are arriving at the southern border. Axios has new reporting out about the thousands of Chinese migrants and asylum seekers that have arrived at the U.S.-Mexico border in the past few months, many traveling through Central America to get there.

During the first two months of this year nearly 2,200 Chinese nationals crossed into Panama. That's more than the 2,000 that arrived all of last year and the 79 in 2021. That's according to Panama's government. Axios’ Stef Kight has been covering this.

Stef, why are we seeing this influx?

STEF KIGHT: There are a lot of factors at play here. But one of these is, the fact that China has released people from some of the, the harshest Covid policies, that it's easier now for Chinese people to leave the country than it has been over the past several years and we spoke to at least one migrant who shared how that zero Covid policy was a reminder of just how harsh, um, living under President Xi Jinping's rule can be and was a reason for why he and his son fled.

NIALA: Their journey took them through 11 countries. What are these migrants going through to try to get to the U.S.?

STEF: Yeah. This is such a long journey for so many migrants trying to make it to the U.S. This has always been the case. There have been Chinese migrants and asylum seekers at the southern border, but the numbers have really ticked up in ways that are notable. But as you pointed out, the one migrant who we spoke to who chose to go by the pseudonym, Sam, went through several different countries to get to the U.S., including Thailand and Turkey, and then flying into Ecuador, which has visa free travel for Chinese nationals. And then from there, made the journey north, including through the Darién gap into Panama.

NIALA: Chinese nationals are granted asylum in the U.S. at a high rate, 58% compare that to an average of 10% for asylum seekers from places like Guatemala and Honduras. Why is that?

STEF: One reason is just the fact that there are a lot of persecuted Christians in China. Many of the asylum seekers and refugees from China kind of fall under that religious persecution category, which enables them to get asylum in the U.S. easier than other migrants who maybe have, uh, tougher claims to prove.

NIALA: How does President Biden's new migration policy, which disqualifies most migrants from seeking asylum at the southern border, come into play here?

STEF: We know that much of their policies have been geared towards other nationalities, including Venezuelans, Nicaraguans, Cubans, and Haitians, who are some of the biggest populations who have been arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border. But could apply to Chinese migrants and asylum seekers as well. We'll have to see how and when this actually goes into effect.

NIALA: Stef Kight covers immigration for Axios. Thanks Stef.

STEF: Thanks, Niala.

NIALA: In a moment: an Axios exclusive on threats against China’s critics.


Fake bomb threats are used to harass China critics

NIALA: Welcome back to Axios Today. I'm Niala Boodhoo.

Two Chinese activists and a Chinese journalist living abroad appear to have been targeted in a harassment campaign for criticizing the Chinese government. At least 14 fake bomb threats were called in under their names at luxury hotels across the U.S., Europe, the Middle East and East Asia, resulting in police investigations and a detention of one of the activists. Axios China Reporter, Bethany Allen- Ebrahimian, has exclusive reporting.

Bethany, when you read your reporting on this, it seems like an episode of The Americans, not like something that happens in real life.

BETHANY ALLEN-EBRAHIMIAN: Yes. When I first heard about this, I also thought it was totally unbelievable someone somewhere is first of all, booking and paying for dozens of hotel rooms in Ritz Carltons and Marriotts across the world using someone else's information and then calling in bomb threats to harass these activists. They will get, you know, phone calls, or police will show up at their door saying, “you've made a bomb threat.” And they go, “uh, no I didn't.” There's three people who are being targeted. It's Wong Jingu in the Netherlands who's an activist, Su Yutong in Germany, who is a journalist and Bob Fu in the U.S. who is also an activist.

NIALA: How do we know that the Chinese government is involved with this?

BETHANY: All three of them strongly believe that the Chinese government is behind this. And I've also spoken with experts in transnational repression. They also came to the conclusion that this is very consistent with how the Chinese government has targeted activists in the past, and that it is consistent with state sponsored behavior.

NIALA: What's spurring this kind of escalation now?

BETHANY: First of all, it seems that Chinese President Xi Ping has, has basically determined that China's time has come, that the West isn't gonna push back in any meaningful way. And and second is, this is something that we've seen from other autocratic regimes as well increasingly in, in recent years from Saudi Arabia, Iran, Russia, et cetera. And the reasons for that have to do simply with globalization and the internet. There are more diaspora populations, In other words, more people that these regimes would want to target beyond their borders. It's easier to target them because of the internet. And you know, from the perspective of the critics, it's easier to be a dissident abroad and yet still be influential back home because of modern technology.

NIALA: How has the U.S. responded to this?

BETHANY: Well, we're seeing more moves to take action to combat China's transnational repression and to protect the victims. For example, there was a bill that was recently introduced into Congress that would, uh, support fighting transnational repression and China's specifically. And under both the Trump and the Biden administrations, we've seen numerous indictments against people in the U.S. who were acting on behalf of the Chinese state to harass people here on U.S. soil.

NIALA: Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian is Axios’ China reporter based in Taipei. Thanks, Bethany.

BETHANY: Thanks so much Niala.

NIALA: China's Ministry of Foreign Affairs did not respond to a request for comment on this story. The Chinese embassy in Washington D.C. said it isn't aware of the incidents reported in the U.S. and “does not have any information to offer.”

That’s it for us today! I’m Niala Boodhoo - thanks for listening - stay safe and we’ll see you back here tomorrow morning.

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