DON'T LET THESE ABOMINABLE VENOMOUS RATS INTO AMERICA! DROWN THEM IN THE PACIFIC!
They are part of a growing group from China who are crossing the US border illegally, seeking asylum and a better life
By Shawn Donnan
Photography and video by Nicoló Filippo Rosso
Share this article
They arrive a few dozen at a time, in several bursts each day, part of the multinational stream of migrants entering the US.
They stand out, and not just because they’re Asians in a migration flow made up mostly of people from Latin America. They also appear more affluent than others and more uncomfortable with the desert conditions, particularly when night falls and it’s time to brave the cold.
The migrants are part of a growing number of the Chinese middle class on the run from an economic slowdown. They include entrepreneurs who saw business evaporate in the downturn, middle-aged fathers laid-off from China’s collapsing real-estate sector and young software engineers eager to make it in Silicon Valley.
“I want freedom and a better life,” a young woman who asked to be called Lili told a photographer for Bloomberg News documenting the migrants at a crossing near the California desert outpost of Jacumba Hot Springs.
Chinese migration to the US has a long and fraught history. In the 19th century, Chinese laborers were recruited to work on the US railroads, only to face discrimination. Their immigration was severely curtailed in 1882, when President Chester A. Arthur signed the Chinese Exclusion Act, the first US law to restrict immigration. The barriers it created lasted in various forms for another 80 years, one of America’s great historical injustices.
These days the US and China are rivals on the global stage, competing for influence and resources. But in the desert along the border between California and Mexico, a very human story is playing out.
Data from the Department of Homeland Security shows the number of people with passports from mainland China crossing the US border without the proper paperwork has more than doubled in recent years. Almost 60,000 Chinese migrants have been detained for crossing the border illegally in the past 14 months, almost a quarter of them in California.
In contrast, the US separately issued just 24,603 migrant visas to Chinese nationals in the same period, according to State Department data. The US visa system has been plagued by long delays since the pandemic and what has emerged is an increasingly well-organized, underground alternative of crossing by land, which is widely advertised on social media.
US Customs and Border Protection declined to comment on specific measures it’s taking to deal with the influx of Chinese migrants. In a statement, the agency said that it was seeking more resources from Congress and following US laws. “Individuals encountered at the border are screened and vetted, and those without a legal basis to stay are removed,” according to a spokesperson.
In response to questions about Chinese citizens illegally entering the US, the Foreign Ministry in Beijing said it was “highly concerned” about the situation.
“China's position on illegal immigration is consistent and clear,” it said. “China opposes and resolutely cracks down on any form of illegal immigration and is willing to actively carry out international cooperation in this area.”
Wang Heng, a confident and thoughtful 26-year-old university graduate, landed in the US just after Thanksgiving, crossing through a gap left where the metal border wall ended at a rock formation.
He soon found himself acting as a translator for the border patrol officers, who instructed the new arrivals to line up, put away their phones and store their money and other belongings in their bags.
Wang’s story is one about disillusionment with the society he grew up in. He graduated from university in 2019 and worked for four years in a procession of software jobs for gaming and investment companies. He fell in love with Japanese and western novels along the way and began to question the life he was living.
Wang’s journey took him through Japan, Ecuador and up through Central America to Mexico, a trip he documented using his own camera. With a group of fellow Chinese, he spent almost three days hiking through the rainforest into Panama, where they were robbed, Wang said.
On the day he crossed into the US, he’d been brought to the border by smugglers who he paid $5,000 for an “all-inclusive service.”
After filing an asylum application, he planned to set himself up in Los Angeles and make some money freelancing. His ultimate goal was to move up north to Silicon Valley and find a tech job, but he also wanted to study Japanese literature at a community college.
Other Chinese migrants arriving around the same time as Wang shared similar stories.
Zhou, a migrant who only gave his last name and said he was from Fujian, said he had lost his small factory due to Chinese President Xi Jinping’s crackdown on certain business sectors and the pandemic restrictions. He came to America to make money for his family.
“It’s not easy to make great money in China,” Zhou said. “No one knew that the economy could get so bad.”
Another migrant, Huang Guodeng, 42, said he’s a refugee from the collapse of China’s real estate sector, in which he used to work. His family now survives on credit cards. “There was no way out,” he said. “I needed to cover the daily expenses of the family. So I came to the United States.”
Sam Schultz, a retired relief worker from Boulder Park, California, volunteers to help feed and assist the migrants he meets near Jacumba Hot Springs, in eastern San Diego County. He said the most striking thing about the Chinese migrants he encountered was that they appear to be middle-class people with means and a plan.
“Every person I talk to has a job waiting,” Schultz said. The more well-off tell him that they combined their journey to the US with a vacation in Cancun. All follow a well-trodden path laid out on Chinese social media apps. “They call it ‘walking the line’,” Schultz says.
This image has been modified to blur out the passport information due to privacy and security concerns.
For all the recent arrivals the bigger goal is clear: A new life and maybe one for their families too.
“What I look forward to most is equality for all and personal freedom,” said Wang. “I don’t want my children to experience what I have endured.”