The surge of migrants entering the United States across the southern border increasingly includes people from a surprising place: China.
Despite the distances involved and the difficulties of the journey, more than 24,000 Chinese citizens have been apprehended crossing into the US from Mexico in the past year. That is more than in the preceding 10 years combined, according to government data.
They typically fly via Turkey into Ecuador, where they do not need a visa to enter. Then, like hundreds of thousands of other migrants from Central and South America and more distant locations, they pay smugglers to guide their travel through the dangerous jungle between Colombia and Panama en route to the US. Once there, they turn themselves in to border officials, and many seek asylum.
And most succeed, in turn fuelling further attempts. Chinese citizens are more successful than people from other countries with their asylum claims in immigration court. Even when they are not, they end up staying anyway because China usually will not take them back.
In the polarising debate over immigration, it is a little-discussed wrinkle in the US system: American officials cannot force countries to take back their own citizens. For the most part, this is not an issue. But about a dozen countries are not terribly cooperative, and China is the worst offender.
Of the 1.3 million people in American soil with final orders to be deported, about 100,000 are Chinese, according to an administration official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the internal data.
The migrants are part of an exodus of citizens who have grown frustrated with harsh restrictions related to the coronavirus pandemic and the direction of Xi Jinping’s authoritarian government.
“The largest 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 beach town in the north. China was so stifling, he added, it had become “difficult to breathe”.
He was among about 100 Chinese people setting off that morning to start the journey through the treacherous Darién Gap, the only land route to the US from South America. Xu said he learnt about the trek from YouTube and through Google searches, including “how to get outside of China” and “how to escape”.
In the last two years, the area has been one of the most difficult parts of a desperate journey for large numbers of migrants seeking to go north. So far, 481,000 people have crossed through the jungle this year, compared with 248,000 last year, according to Panamanian officials.
Most of the migrants have been Venezuelans, Ecuadoreans and Haitians fleeing crises at home, including economic and security problems. But this year, more and more Chinese have embarked on the journey.
So many have crossed that Chinese citizens are now the fourth-largest group traversing the jungle.
Most who arrived in the past year were middle-class adults who have headed to New York after being released from custody. New York has been a prime destination for migrants from other nations as well, particularly Venezuelans, who rely on the city’s resources, including its shelters. But few of the Chinese migrants are staying in the shelters. Instead, they are going where Chinese citizens have gone for generations: Flushing, Queens or, to some, the Chinese Manhattan, aka Chinatown.
“New York is a self-sufficient Chinese immigrants community,” said the Reverend Mike Chan, the executive director of the Chinese Christian Herald Crusade, a faith-based group in the neighbourhood. Newcomers do not have to speak English because so many speak Mandarin or Cantonese, he added, making it easier to find a job as well. That kind of network helps people find immigration lawyers, housing and other basic needs.
In the past, most Chinese asylum-seekers have arrived on a visa and then applied to stay once they were in the country. The last such influx of Chinese migrants entering without a permit came by sea in the 1990s.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.