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 United States from Mexico in the past year. That is more than in the preceding 10 years combined, according to government data.
They typically fly into Ecuador, where they do not need a visa. 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 United States. Once there, they turn themselves in to border officials and many seek 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 court. And those who are not end up staying anyway because China usually will not take them back.
In the polarizing debate over immigration, it is a little-discussed wrinkle in the U.S. 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 the United States 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 trend has been coined the “run philosophy,” with citizens escaping to Japan, Europe and the United States.
“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 migrants setting off that morning to start 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 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 portions 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.
Many fly to Turkey before heading to Ecuador and making their way to the United States.
More than 24,000 came to the United States during the 2023 fiscal year, according to government data. Over the previous 10 years, fewer than 15,000 Chinese migrants were caught crossing the southern border illegally.
The historic levels of migration across the southern border are a major political problem in the United States, where President Biden faces fierce pressure to curb the flow; the Chinese migrants are a small fraction.
Most who have come to the United States 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.
“New York is a self-sufficient Chinese immigrants community,” said the Rev. Mike Chan, the executive director of the Chinese Christian Herald Crusade, a faith-based group in the neighborhood. 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.
Their route to Flushing through a South American jungle is what makes the most recent arrivals different. In the past, most Chinese asylum seekers have come on a visa and then applied once they were in the United States. The last time such an influx of Chinese migrants entered illegally, they came by sea in the 1990s. But the current volume is much higher.
“America is the greatest power in the world, isn’t it?” a 29-year-old Chinese migrant who would identify himself only by his nickname and surname, Little Xu, said 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 out of fear of retribution.
He left China, he said, to find work. “I’ve lost hope where I lived,” he said, describing his job as a jewelry salesman in central Hubei Province and how his boss had stopped paying him. Mr. Xu arrived in Flushing in August after a two-month journey from China, which included hiking through the jungle in rain so heavy that his shoes ripped open.
Migrants seeking asylum have to wait about six months after they file their application to get permission to work legally. More recent arrivals will wait years for their cases to wind through the system.
In general, Chinese asylum seekers are more successful in immigration court than most. About 67 percent of applicants from China were granted asylum from 2001 to 2021, according to data analyzed by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University.
And those who are ordered removed are not likely to be deported.
Muzaffar Chishti, a senior fellow with the nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute, said as long as that happened, the migration trend would continue.
“If you make it to the U.S., then you’re more likely than not to be able to stay,” he said. “So it’s absolutely worth the chance of taking that risk.”
Still, the exodus of Chinese citizens, particularly those of working age, to the United States and elsewhere presents a challenge to China in the long run, according to Carl Minzner, a senior fellow for China studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.
With other countries that have refused to take back their citizens, the United States has withheld aid money or used similar leverage to gain cooperation. It also has the ability to restrict access to certain visas, as it did in 2017 with Cambodia, Eritrea, Guinea and Sierra Leone.
But those have not been compelling arguments for China, which receives little U.S. aid. And as its relations with the United States have deteriorated over the years, the issue has not appeared to be a priority.
When Mr. Biden and Mr. Xi met last week during an international summit in San Francisco, for instance, immigration was absent in their discussion. Instead, they talked about fentanyl, American business investment in China and export controls, among other topics.
In the past, American diplomats have tried to work with the Chinese government to persuade it to repatriate its citizens, and the response has tended to be the same.
“They would just plain refuse to acknowledge the person was Chinese,” said Michele Thoren Bond, a former assistant secretary of state who 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,” Ms. Bond added.