Mar 29, 2023 - World

Inside the boom in Chinese migrants at the southern border

Data: Customs and Border Protection; Chart: Axios Visuals

Thousands of Chinese migrants and asylum seekers have arrived at the U.S.-Mexico border in recent months, and many more are heading north after passing through the treacherous Darién Gap jungle between Colombia and Panama.

Why it matters: It's another example of people from well beyond the Americas seeking refuge in the U.S. through the southwest border — and reflects the ongoing backlash to Chinese President Xi Jinping's harsh domestic policies.

  • "So the word is out, right?," Rep. Vicente Gonzalez, a Texas border Democrat, told Axios. "If you can get to our southern border, you have pretty good shot at getting in, and it has changed the demographics."

Zoom in: Axios spoke with a Chinese migrant in his 40s, who requested to be identified by the pseudonym Sam out of concern for his safety.

  • Sam crossed the U.S.-Mexico border last month with his 16-year-old son — a journey that took them through 11 countries, including Thailand, Turkey, Ecuador, Panama and Guatemala, he told Axios.
  • A rights activist from Henan province, Sam participated in many social movements in Guangzhou, a city in southern China. He left out of fear of the deepening authoritarianism of President Xi, as displayed through extreme zero-COVID policies. Sam's wife and younger son remain in China.
  • Like many other Chinese migrants, Sam and his son took advantage of Ecuador's visa-free travel, and then began their journey north to the U.S.
  • They crossed seven Latin America countries before entering the U.S. at Brownsville, Texas, where they were arrested by the Border Patrol and detained for five days. They now live in Albany, New York, and have a court date in October.
  • Axios is not able to independently verify Sam's account.

By the numbers: Many more migrants with stories similar to Sam's are likely to arrive. During the first two months of this year, nearly 2,200 Chinese nationals have crossed into Panama through the thick jungle of the Darién Gap, according to migration data from Panama's government.

  • That's more than the 2,000 Chinese migrants who made the trip in all of 2022 — which itself was a huge jump from the 77 counted in 2021.
  • "This exodus signifies Chinese people's resistance to President Xi's regressive policies and draconian lockdown measures," Sam told Axios. "It's like an animal stampede before an earthquake."

The big picture: There has long been Chinese migration at the southern border, going back to the 1980s.

  • But the numbers have ticked up in recent months because of a variety of factors, such as the reopening of China's borders and growing backlogs for legal immigration pathways to the U.S.
  • Chinese nationals also are granted asylum at a relatively high rate in the U.S. — 58%, according to recent government data. That's compared to an average of 10% for asylum seekers from the Northern Triangle, which includes Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador.
  • Bob Fu, president of the Christian nonprofit ChinaAid, which advocates for human rights in China, has noticed the uptick in Chinese migrants at the southern border. He said his group now receives several assistance requests from these migrants every week.
  • He gave three reasons for this uptick: Further deterioration in human rights conditions and religious freedom in China; a rollback of more stringent U.S. border policies that were in place under President Trump, and social media posts about people crossing, which have triggered a bandwagon effect.

Between the lines: Liang Zai, professor of sociology at SUNY Albany who studies Chinese migration, told Axios that the surge at the border also is driven by the pandemic's profound impact on China's economy.

  • "The damage to the Chinese economy compared to four or five years ago is just so devastating for low-skilled workers," he said.
  • Liang also highlighted tighter visa screening and lingering effects of travel restrictions between China and the U.S. as reasons why some Chinese decide to illegally cross the southern border instead of flying into the U.S. directly.

What they're saying: Team Brownsville, a nonprofit focused on providing basic goods and resources to recently arrived migrants and asylum seekers in that Texas city, has been receiving dozens of Chinese nationals every day, compared to just a few when the group was founded in 2018.

  • The language barrier has been a challenge, the group's volunteer coordinator Andrea Rudnik said. Because of that, the group hasn't been able to learn much about these migrants. However, many seemed to be headed for Los Angeles, she said.
  • Zheng Cunzhu, a LA-based immigration expert and director of the nonprofit Voices of Immigrants, said his group recently started renting AirBnB rooms in California to accommodate Chinese migrants who had just crossed the southern border. The group plans to rent more in Arizona, he said.
  • "Zero-COVID policies severely harmed ordinary Chinese people," said Zheng, who said he has personally helped more than 100 such migrants. "Many people didn't care about politics before, but the pandemic awakened them. They realized there's really no freedom in China."

What to watch: The Biden administration announced a new policy last month that could disqualify most migrants from seeking asylum at the southern border.

  • In what critics called a "transit ban" set to take effect in May when the U.S. lifts COVID restrictions known as Title 42, migrants who pass through another country on their way to the U.S. but without requesting protection in that country will be ineligible to claim asylum in the U.S.
  • It's not clear how this policy will affect Chinese migrants at the border, but some U.S. civil rights organizations, including the ACLU, have vowed to sue the government over the new rules.
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