A growing number of Chinese migrants are crossing the southern border of the United States

The wave of migrants entering the United States across the southern border increasingly includes people from a surprising place: China.

Despite the distances and difficulties of travel, more than 24,000 Chinese citizens have been arrested entering the United States from Mexico over the past year. According to government data, this is more than recorded in the last 10 years combined.

They usually fly to Ecuador, where they don’t need a visa. Then, like hundreds of thousands of other migrants from Central and South America and further afield, they pay smugglers to guide them on the journey through the dangerous jungle between Colombia and Panama en route to the United States. Once there, they turn themselves in to border officials and many ask for asylum.

And most succeed, in turn fueling further attempts. Chinese citizens are more successful than people from other countries with their asylum claims in immigration courts. And those who aren’t end up staying anyway because China usually won’t take them back.

In the polarizing debate over immigration, it’s a little-discussed aspect of the U.S. system: American officials can’t force countries to take back their citizens. For most, this isn’t a problem. But about a dozen countries are not particularly cooperativeand China is the worst culprit.

Of the 1.3 million people in the United States under final deportation orders, about 100,000 are Chinese, according to an administration official who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss internal data.

The migrants are part of an exodus of citizens frustrated by harsh restrictions related to the coronavirus pandemic and the direction of Xi Jinping’s authoritarian government. This trend has been called “running philosophy,” with citizens fleeing to Japan, Europe and the United States.

“The main reason for me is the political environment,” Mark Xu, 35, a Chinese elementary and middle school English teacher, said in February as he waited to board a boat in Necoclí, Colombia, a small town seaside resort in the north. China was so suffocating, he added, that it had become “difficult to breathe.”

He was among about 100 Chinese migrants who set out that morning to begin the journey through the treacherous Darién Gap, the only land route to the United States from South America. Mr. Xu said he learned about the trip from YouTube and through Google searches, including “how to get out of China” and “how to escape.”

For the past two years, the area has been one of the most difficult parts of a desperate journey for large numbers of migrants trying to go north. According to Panamanian authorities, 481,000 people have crossed the jungle so far this year, compared to 248,000 last year.

Most of the migrants were Venezuelans, Ecuadorians and Haitians fleeing internal crises, including economic and security problems. But this year more and more Chinese have taken the journey.

So many have crossed that Chinese citizens are now the fourth largest group crossing the jungle.

Many fly to Turkey before heading to Ecuador and reaching the United States.

According to government data, more than 24,000 people arrived in the United States during the 2023 fiscal year. Over the past 10 years, fewer than 15,000 Chinese migrants have been caught illegally crossing the southern border.

Historic levels of migration across the southern border represent a major political problem in the United States, where President Biden faces intense pressure to stem the flow; Chinese migrants are a small fraction.

Most of those who came to the United States last year were middle-class adults headed to New York after being released from custody.

New York has also been a favored destination for migrants from other nations, particularly Venezuelans, who rely on the city’s resources, including its shelters. But few Chinese migrants remain in shelters. Instead, they are going where Chinese citizens have gone for generations: Flushing, Queens. Or for some, the Chinese Manhattan.

“New York is a self-sufficient Chinese immigrant community,” said the Rev. Mike Chan, executive director of the Chinese Christian Herald Crusade, a religious group in the neighborhood. Newcomers don’t have to speak English because many speak Mandarin or Cantonese, he added, making it easier to find a job, too. This type of network helps people find lawyers who specialize in immigration, housing and other basic needs.

Their path to Flushing through the South American jungle is what makes the latest arrivals different. In the past, most Chinese asylum seekers arrived on a visa and then applied once they arrived in the United States. The last time such an influx of Chinese migrants entered the country illegally was by sea in the 1990s. But the current volume is much higher.

“America is the greatest power in the world, isn’t it?” said a 29-year-old Chinese migrant who identifies himself only by his nickname and last name, Little Xu, recently outside a Taiwanese tea shop in Flushing. Mr. Xu was taking a break from his job as a messenger and asked that his full name not be used for fear of retaliation.

He left China, he said, to look for work. “I lost hope where I lived,” she said, describing his job as a jewelry salesman in central Hubei province and how his boss stopped paying him. Mr. Xu arrived in Flushing in August after a two-month trip from China, which included a jungle hike in rain so heavy that his shoes were ripped.

Asylum-seeking migrants must wait about six months after submitting their application to obtain permission to work legally. More recent arrivals will wait years for their cases to be entered into the system.

In general, Chinese asylum seekers are more successful than many others in immigration courts. According to the data, between 2001 and 2021, about 67% of applicants from China were granted asylum. data analyzed by Syracuse University’s Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse.

And those who are ordered removed are unlikely to be deported.

Muzaffar Chishti, senior fellow at the Migration Policy Institute, said that as long as this happens, the migration trend will continue.

“If you can get to the United States, you are more likely to not be able to stay,” he said. “So it’s definitely worth taking that risk.”

However, the exodus of Chinese citizens, particularly those of working age, to the United States and elsewhere poses a long-term challenge to China, according to Carl Minzner, senior fellow for China studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.

For the first time in 60 years, China’s population is declining, with fewer births than deaths. And its economy is growing at the slowest pace in 40 years.

With other countries that have they refused to take back their citizens, the United States withheld aid money or used similar leverage to gain cooperation. It also has the ability to restrict access to certain visas, as happened in 2017 with Cambodia, Eritrea, Guinea and Sierra Leone.

But these have not been convincing arguments for China, which receives little aid from the United States. And as its relations with the United States have deteriorated over the years, the issue does not appear to be a priority.

When Biden and Xi met last week at an international summit in San Francisco, for example, immigration was absent from their discussion. Instead, they talked about fentanyl, American corporate investments in China and export controls, among other topics.

In the past, American diplomats have tried to work with the Chinese government to convince it to repatriate its citizens, and the response has tended to be the same.

“They would just refuse to acknowledge that the person was Chinese,” said Michele Thoren Bond, a former assistant secretary of state worked on these issues.

“It is not credible that a country that documents and monitors its citizens as closely as China does not have photos of every citizen,” Bond added.

Reporting contribution was provided by Mable Chan AND Li Yuan in New York, Julie Turkewitz in Necoclí, Colombia e Federico Rios in Medellín, Colombia.