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More people from China seeking asylum at US border

Franziska Wüst
February 29, 2024

A weakening economy and increasing political repression are forcing ever more Chinese people to emigrate. Spurred by TikTok, many are seeking more sustainable conditions in the United States.

A group of migrants, some with their hands over their heads, seen at Jacumba Hot Springs Migrant Camp near the US-Mexico border
US Customs and Border Patrol agents pick up migrants and transport them to transit centers for registrationImage: Franziska Wüst/DW

The skin beneath Guo's pant leg is rubbed raw and, despite the bitter cold, he's only wearing dusty plastic sandals. The 24-year-old said he bought them in Colombia, on a migration route to the United States favored by people from Latin America and the Caribbean. Now, like Guo, ever more migrants from China are joining them.

Guo's journey began in Shenzhen, in southeastern China. From there, he flew to Ecuador. "We all go to Ecuador [...] because Ecuador is visa-free country for China passport," said Guo. The remainder of his trek was via land, taking him through the Darien Gap, a densely overgrown rainforest that leads from Colombia into Panama. From there, he ultimately arrived in Jacumba Hot Springs, a tiny California town of 600 residents located about 125 kilometers (75 miles) east of downtown San Diego.

Thousands risk brutal crossing of Darien Gap into Panama

Guo sat with his legs curled up in his arms on a plastic tarp he had laid on the ground to fight the cold of the desert morning. In China, he worked as a factory mechanic. His English is broken, but his euphoria is clear. "Very exciting," he said, "because I finally here in the US."

He had crossed the US-Mexico border the night before with 50 other people. Migrants who arrive here enter through gaps in the US border wall, such as at the nearby San Judas Break. They were lined up, waiting for US Customs and Border Patrol agents to pick them up so that they could officially apply for asylum. Several wore down jackets; others were wrapped up in blankets. They had very few belongs with them — only two had suitcases. Most of them were from China.

US Border Patrol agents drive along a section of border wall topped with barbed wire
Thousands of migrants have illegally entered the US through the San Judas BreakImage: Franziska Wüst/DW

For Chinese nationals, asylum chances are high

Although the number of Chinese nationals crossing the US southern border is still small in comparison to other nationalities — making up just 2.5% of overall entries according to US Customs and Border Protection data — they are now among the fastest-growing groups among all those seeking entry. From October through January, US Border Patrol agents registered about 19,000 illegal Chinese entries. During the same period in 2021, while pandemic restrictions were still in place, only 55 were registered. 

Michelle Mittelstadt, of the Washington-based Migration Policy Institute, said most Chinese people chose to enter the United States via the southern border because of stringent US visa rules and long waits for Chinese nationals through official channels.

Despite entering the country illegally, the chances of getting asylum in the United States are fairly good for Chinese nationals. According to the US Justice Department, asylum was granted to over 50% of Chinese applicants, as opposed to only 4% of Mexicans.

Chinese men in jackets with bags stand in line in the desert near the US-Mexico border
These migrants have asked to be made unrecognizable, for fear of being recognized by the Chinese governmentImage: Franziska Wüst/DW

"I know all this information from internet, from TikTok," said Guo, pulling his cellphone out of his pocket. Social media channels on video and messaging platforms display the best routes for getting into the US, giving step-by-step instructions, suggesting various modes of transportation, and even listing how much border patrol agents expect to be bribed in each country along the way.

'Take the risk'

The phenomenon of Chinese people entering the United States via the southern border has come to be described by the term "Zouxian," which can roughly be translated as "take the risk." The term's broad dissemination on social media platforms has led many young Chinese to do just that.

"They rely on social media more in China for getting their information," said Ian Johnson, a China expert at the US Council on Foreign Relations. "In the Western countries, you would say: 'What does the mainstream media say about it?' But, in China, there is no way to fact check." Johnson said he was concerned that so many of those young people have no idea what they are getting themselves into.

Men in jackets stand in line near some cars underneath a powerline in the desert
Migrants gather at an aid vehicle where down jackets were being handed out Image: Franziska Wüst/DW

What's driving Chinese to flee their homeland? "China has lots of problems," said Guo. "Young people cannot afford the house prices in the city."

China's economy is in a downturn, with extremely high youth unemployment, and deflation forecast for the coming year. That could all lead to a spiral of plunging consumer spending, company bankruptcies and mass unemployment. And Johnson said the situation would not just hit the very poor.

"The economic slowdown is affecting broader ranges of the population, including the lower middle class," said Johnson. He added that increased political persecution under President Xi Jinping has also fueled a desire to leave China behind.

Guo's family doesn't know that he has fled to the United States. "I don't have a good relationship with my family, because I have total different opinion about the government, about CCP [the Chinese Communist Party], about this world. I don't like totalitarianism," he said, adding that he's known that the US is a democracy and an economically powerful nation from the time he was a child.

It's unclear how long Guo will have to sit in the desert cold. Border agents are making the rounds in their white Jeeps, but it could be a few hours before anyone is sent by to pick them up, maybe even another night. But Guo said he is not worried about being sent back. His plan once he gets settled in the US?

"Get a job to have better life. Few years later, I want to be a professional truck driver."

Mexico and US to tighten migration controls

This article was originally written in German and translated by Jon Shelton.