Chinese Migrants Face Perilous Journeys En Route to the U.S.

Last week, the bodies of eight Chinese nationals were discovered off the coast of Oaxaca, Mexico, after their boat capsized along a route often used by migrants attempting to reach the U.S. This is the latest example of an ongoing wave of Chinese emigration, and it highlights the perilous conditions that Chinese migrants face in pursuit of a better life in the U.S. Reporting on the incident for RFA, Jing Wei described the dangers of taking various migration routes through Central America:

“I heard that one of these boats had capsized and people had drowned,” [migrant Li Kai] said in an interview recorded weeks before the March 29 tragedy.

[…] California-based China Democracy Party activist Jie Lijian, who regularly assists Chinese asylum-seekers after they arrive in the United States, said the latest accident wasn’t on a well-known “line” into the United States, and that the route had likely been taken to evade maritime patrols on better-known routes.

“They will take routes across wider stretches of sea with bigger waves as a shortcut for the land route,” Jie told RFA in a recent interview.

“The sea may be dangerous and unpredictable, but if you go that way, you can avoid a lot of border inspections, the threat of deportation, high fees and private robbery gangs [who prey on migrants],” Jie said. [Source]

Chinese migrants’ trek to the southern border of the U.S. is known as zǒuxiàn (走线), or the “walking route.” It is taken by some Chinese citizens seeking to rùn (), or escape China. Both terms surged in online popularity during the COVID-19 pandemic and in the wake of Xi Jinping’s reappointment at the 20th Party Congress. Previously, rùn was soft-censored on Weibo and zǒuxiàn was hard-censored on Douyin. Many Chinese migrants have found tips on Douyin for how to complete their journey, and such resources have supported “run philosophy” (润学 rùnxué), or the study of how to emigrate. (For more details on these and over 100 popular online terms, see our recent ebook, China Digital Times Lexicon: 20th Anniversary Edition.)

The latest figures show that in 2023, at least 25,565 Chinese migrants passed through the Darién Gap, a tenfold increase from 2022’s already record number. In an article last month for the Wilson Center, Joshua Peng tallied the figures showing a sharp increase in illegal Chinese migration to the U.S. in recent years, in correlation with U.S. restrictions on legal immigration:

For Chinese migrants, increasingly exclusionary immigration policies spurred by US COVID-era restrictions have cast doubt on historically reliable pathways such as education, work, or tourist visas. In 2021, Chinese B-visa applications saw a rejection rate of more than 79%. Though that number came down to 30% in 2022, the visa refusal rate to Chinese nationals has steadily increased from just 9% in 2014. Tourist visas have also become unfeasible for those eager to leave: the waiting time for an interview has risen to more than six months.

In the first nine months of 2023, the US Border Patrol made 22,187 arrests of Chinese nationals entering the country from Mexico. This was 13 times the number from the same period in 2022. Most of the previous figure stems from people traveling from much further south than Mexico.

[…] The US Border Patrol experienced record high numbers of migrant encounters at the US-Mexico border toward the end of 2023. Though the proportion of Chinese migrants is still relatively small when compared to other nationalities, they have become the fastest growing migrant demographic. [Source]

As Peter Yeung reported for Al Jazeera, Chinese migrants taking these long routes through Central and South America are particularly vulnerable to hazards:

The journey from China can take months of cross-continental travel and can cost as much as tens of thousands of dollars. Many fly into Istanbul or Addis Ababa, which pose few logistical issues, and then onto Ecuador, one of the few Latin American countries that allow Chinese nationals visa-free entry. From there, the danger-filled, fraught journey to the Darien, and eventually to the US, is made largely overland.

“The Chinese migrants are particularly vulnerable,” said [Giuseppe Loprete, head of mission in Panama for the International Organization for Migration]. “They are seen as more wealthy, and so they can be targeted. The language problem also means that if something happens, it’s more difficult for them to access medical attention.”

During the journey, Chinese migrants are often taken advantage of by traffickers, Loprete added. Beatings and robberies are also common in the lawless Panamanian side of the route. [Source]

The rise in Chinese migration to the U.S. has been exploited by political actors on the American right. Far-right influencers have portrayed such migrants as part of an “invasion” of spies and criminals, purportedly cultivated by President Joe Biden and the Democratic Party to create new, illegal voters. Stoking such fears, Republicans have described these Chinese migrants as “military age men,” and Donald Trump has falsely claimed that they are “probably building an army from within.” 

On Weibo, Chinese netizens have criticized both the far-right influencers for spreading conspiracy theories, as well as Chinese migrants for potentially being hired by influencers to denigrate China and praise the U.S. in their interviews. Ironically, some nationalist voices on Weibo have echoed American criticisms of Chinese migrants by calling them “domestic criminals, lazy and selfish.” Other Weibo users joked about the costly medical system awaiting Chinese migrants in the U.S. by highlighting the case of a Chinese immigrant to the U.S. whose hospital treatment for kidney stones left him with a bill of over $25,000. Beyond the top Weibo posts, which tend to skew negative, some netizens have expressed sympathy and support in the comment sections of WeChat videos depicting the struggles of Chinese migrants. 

Outside of partisan media bubbles lies a sobering reality. Zheng-sheng Zhang, professor of Chinese at San Diego State University, wrote a recent op-ed for the San Diego Union Tribune about his experience at Jacumba Hot Springs, about 80 miles east of San Diego. Zhang served as the interpreter for a crew from the CBS show 60 Minutes, who were shooting a segment on Chinese migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border. Describing the range of experiences and motivations of the Chinese migrants that he encountered, Zhang concluded, “I cannot help but sympathize with those who want to flee from a tyrannical regime and seek a better life, for themselves as well as for their families”:

The migrants hail from many parts of China: Anhui, Fujian, Henan, Jilin, Jiangsu, Tianjin, Guangzhou, Guangxi, Quanzhou and Wuhan. Many said they spent over a month getting here, traveling through multiple countries, including Thailand, Morocco, England, Japan, Turkey, Dubai, Ecuador, Mexico, Colombia, Costa Rica, Panama and Nicaragua. While many walked much of the journey, some flew the whole way. Most spent tens of thousands of renminbi, or Chinese yuan, for the trip. ($1 buys about seven yuan.) A woman sold her house and opted for an all-air itinerary, so she suffered less hardship. Two said that they had been robbed on the way.

[…] A young recent college graduate spoke decent English. He said he came for the freedom, “[Here] you can say whatever you want,” and started to denounce the current regime in China. 

[…] A particularly poignant moment I will remember forever: We were talking to a family of five from Guangzhou (I used Cantonese with them, too). When asked why they wanted to leave China and come to the U.S., the father was more than once overcome by emotion and could only utter “For the kids, for the kids.” Whenever I think of him, I cannot help but tear up. [Source]

Reporting from a refugee camp in Panama just past the Darién Gap, Mengyu Dong published a long feature this month for the Chinese-language news magazine Wainao (WHYNOT) showcasing the stories of various Chinese migrants taking the long route to the U.S. Many of them (the names used in the article are pseudonyms) said that they had fled China due to the deteriorating domestic political environment, and referenced the government’s repressive surveillance apparatus. Some explanatory links have been added to the paragraphs translated below.

The reason [Lao Qi] decided to emigrate was because of a phone call he received last July. At that time, a middle-school gymnasium in the city of Qiqihar, Heilongjiang province had collapsed, killing 11 students, including the daughter of Lao Qi’s friend. Inspired by a sense of righteous indignation, Lao Qi said that he had helped his friend to file a petition with higher-level authorities [effectively bypassing the local authorities], and afterward found himself “targeted by [those same] local authorities.” […] He said it was the first time he had found himself on the opposite side of the authorities. He remembered the “chained woman” incident in Feng county, Jiangsu province, that had previously attracted so much attention. A woman who went by the online name “Wuyi” [“Swallow”] had been twice detained for attempting to visit the “chained woman,” and had subsequently disappeared from public view. The more Lao Qi thought about it, the more frightened he became. “I’m not as brave as Wuyi,” he said. “I just wanted to run away as quickly as I could.”

[…Another migrant, Mr. Shao] said that as the political environment in China tightens, private enterprises are having a harder time. After Xi Jinping was reappointed in 2022, Mr. Shao completely lost confidence in the country. “I just wanted to leave. If I didn’t leave soon, I knew damn well that I might not be able to afford to leave later on,” he said. “The news sings praises [of the government] every day, and you don’t hear any genuine voices. But a country that everyone wants to leave must surely be hell.”

Xiao Gao, a Hebei native traveling with [Mr. Shao], also expressed disappointment with China’s political environment. After graduating from college, Xiao Gao got a job as a content moderator for an internet company. Thanks to his job, he said, “I was able to access the uncensored internet in order to monitor what influencers outside the Great Firewall were saying and to prevent that content from spreading inside the Firewall.” The job allowed him to come into contact with uncensored information. “The things that I believed when I was in college—now that’s all been upended.” Xiao Gao also refused to be photographed [for this article]. He said that even if he were wearing a face-mask, he couldn’t evade facial recognition, and he didn’t want to bring trouble on his family back home. [Chinese]

Winnie Hu and Jeffrey E. Singer reported for The New York Times that if Chinese migrants make it into the U.S. after surviving the difficult journey through Central and South America, many of them still face challenges upon arriving at their final destinations, even in relatively welcoming cities such as New York:

[E]ven as the migrants have settled in, their growing numbers have also created challenges in immigrant communities where many people were already struggling with financial insecurity and social isolation because of language and cultural barriers, as well as fears about their safety following a spate of anti-Asian hate crimes.

[…] The Chinese-American Planning Council, a social service agency, has expanded its programs to an additional 20,000 people over the past four years, but “the need is still out there,” said Wayne Ho, the president and chief executive officer. Hundreds remain on waiting lists for its adult literacy classes, mental health counseling, and four older adult centers in Flushing, Chinatown and Sunset Park.

Asian American leaders said their communities have long been underfunded by government programs, in part because of enduring model-minority stereotypes of Asians as self-sufficient and upwardly mobile. A 2015 report found that organizations serving the city’s Asian American communities had received a tiny part of the city’s social service contracts.

[… S]ome migrants have found that they are not necessarily better off. At employment agencies in Flushing, dozens of recent migrants have returned day after day to sit on folding chairs waiting for jobs. [Source]

Translation by Cindy Carter.


Subscribe to CDT


Browsers Unbounded by Lantern

Now, you can combat internet censorship in a new way: by toggling the switch below while browsing China Digital Times, you can provide a secure "bridge" for people who want to freely access information. This open-source project is powered by Lantern, know more about this project.

Google Ads 1

Giving Assistant

Google Ads 2

Anti-censorship Tools

Life Without Walls

Click on the image to download Firefly for circumvention

Open popup

Welcome back!

CDT is a non-profit media site, and we need your support. Your contribution will help us provide more translations, breaking news, and other content you love.