In the past year, average monthly encounters with Chinese nationals seeking asylum at the U.S.-Mexico border have increased by over 1,000%. This unexpected and sudden development has important ramifications for U.S. immigration policy and foreign policy alike. If the trend continues, it could presage a new era where means and motive join proximity as major factors in shaping the demographics of irregular migration. The American response to Chinese migrants fleeing worsening economic prospects and political repression at home will also have significant repercussions in our intensifying geopolitical competition with China.
To assess these challenges and opportunities, we must first understand who the Chinese migrants at our southern border are.
Despite their recent surge, the number of migrants from China remains relatively small compared to most Latin American countries. Even when compared to migrants from other middle-income, historically atypical countries, total Chinese migration has trailed behind Russian and Indian migration. July 2023 was the first month where Chinese migration outpaced these comparable nations.
Nonetheless, Chinese migrants and asylum seekers are unique because their numbers have steadily increased while others have fallen. In addition, the arrival of thousands of Chinese nationals has captured attention from the media, political pundits, and politicians.
Among Members of Congress, the rise in irregular Chinese migration has provoked speculation regarding their intentions. Representatives Mark Green, Eli Crane, and August Pfluger have all intimated, to varying degrees, that the Chinese migrants encountered at the southern border are a subversive force being sent as a precursor to a military conflict with China.
While thorough security vetting is undoubtedly prudent, little evidence suggests that Chinese agents are attempting to abuse the asylum system to gain entry.
Statistics and Pathways
At the start of the decade, encounters with Chinese nationals at the U.S.-Mexico border were exceedingly low. From January 2020 to December 2021, an average of just 54 Chinese nationals were encountered at the southern border per month. Around May of 2022 — after Chinese COVID-19 restrictions eased — this trend began to change when monthly encounters surpassed 200 for the first time in over two years. This acceleration became even more pronounced when encounters surpassed 900 in December 2022. Since then, monthly encounters have averaged 2,145.
Many migrants first fly into Ecuador–which does not require a visa for Chinese citizens–before proceeding through the Darién Gap in Panama and Central America via a mix of transportation modes. The popularity of this approach is reflected by how closely reported encounters with Chinese nationals at the Darién Gap have tracked encounters with Chinese nationals at the U.S.-Mexico border.
Causes of Irregular Chinese Migration
The emergence of irregular Chinese migration defies an easy, singular explanation. At least four significant variables have contributed to this phenomenon: First, the lack of easily accessible legal pathways for Chinese citizens to immigrate to the U.S. has incentivized using irregular channels. This is compounded by a broader perception that our border policy is inconsistent and that the U.S. is a hospitable country.
Second, a dim economic outlook and high unemployment rates for young graduates, coupled with poor marriage prospects for men in particular due to an uneven sex ratio at birth, are undoubtedly causing many to reassess their long-term futures in China. Without job security, a spouse, or a family, there are fewer ties anchoring young Chinese citizens to their homes.
Third, political and religious persecution by Chinese authorities has increased in recent years. The Chinese Communist Party has become more restrictive since the outbreak of COVID-19, which has been leveraged as a pretext for greater crackdowns on dissidents. Many migrants fleeing China are likely doing so because it is now unsafe for them to live in their hometowns. Repression against dissidents in Hong Kong and Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang, among other groups, is also a persistent problem.
Finally, social media is widely believed to play a role in helping Chinese migrants share information about their journey. As with many other human behaviors, migration is mimetic. Historically, this aspect of migration has been contained in community and kinship networks. The rise of social media has made it easier for solo travelers to envision themselves reaching the U.S. by learning through videos posted by others who share advice on navigating challenging aspects of the trip. This development is not exclusive to Chinese migration and will continue to pose a growing challenge for U.S. policymakers.
Evidence Suggests Asylum Seekers are Largely Genuine
With this abbreviated history of recent irregular Chinese history in mind, we can now take a closer look at the demographics of Chinese asylum seekers. According to data from Customs and Border Protection (CBP), Chinese nationals encountered are more likely to be single adults than those from other nationalities. Asylum court data also suggests that most are male and are usually in their late teens to late forties, consistent with visitor data reported by the Ecuadorian government.
Because many of these migrants are single men of working age, it has been suggested, without any proof, that some are military agents or saboteurs sent here by the Chinese government. A closer look at the available data indicates that this is highly unlikely.
As referenced above, the primary route these migrants take begins with entry through Ecuador. While not every Chinese citizen who visits Ecuador intends to continue to the U.S., it is safe to assume that many migrants who reach the border pass through Ecuadorian customs.
Ecuadorian immigration data reveals that not one of the 13,705 Chinese visitors to Ecuador in 2022 reported their primary occupation as military service. While one would hardly expect potential sleeper agents to list their trade as “professional saboteur” on their entry forms, the overall distribution of careers is entirely unremarkable: 66% were in “mid-wage” professions (administrative positions, small vendors), while 14% were in “high-wage” occupations (executives, scientists, and professional workers), and manual laborers, students, and retirees making up most of the rest.
The demographic characteristics of these migrants could be interpreted as threatening. Still, it is far more likely that young Chinese men are disproportionately impacted by the factors driving irregular migration, such as poor economic and social opportunities, as well as government persecution.
Far more substantial evidence suggests that most Chinese asylum seekers are legitimate. According to asylum data from fiscal year 2023, asylum seekers from China had an 82% approval rate in their cases, significantly higher than the 47% approval rate across all nationalities.
Ecuadorian travel data also shows that an unusually high number of Chinese visitors had previous residences in Xinjiang and Hong Kong, which lends credence to the theory that religious and political persecution heavily contributes to this migration stream.
On a per capita basis, both Hong Kong and Xinjiang are within the top 5 previous regions of residence for Chinese visitors to Ecuador. A more granular look at the data reveals that within Xinjiang, the majority Uyghur city of Aksu, the minority Kazakh city of Altay, and the majority Uyghur city of Artux were the most common cities of previous residence. The stated motives of travel for visitors from these cities overwhelmingly rule out business or crew travel as plausible explanations for these numbers.
Finally, anecdotal evidence suggests that migrants are encouraged to surrender to the U.S. Border Patrol to present their asylum claims — hardly a tactic that a covert army of agent provocateurs would favor. This is supported by asylum court data, which shows that 68% of cases involving Chinese nationals this year were affirmative applications, requiring claimants to file for asylum when they arrive in the U.S. In contrast, across all nationalities, 83% of asylum applications in FY 2023 were defensive applications, initiated in response to removal proceedings.
The Strategic Case for Accepting Asylum Seekers
Given the evidence above, it is reasonable to assume that most asylum claims made by Chinese nationals at the southern border are genuine. As such, accepting more humanitarian migrants from China is a moral good and a clear benefit for U.S. foreign policy and soft power.
As Meredith Oyen outlines in The Diplomacy of Migration: Transnational Lives and the Making of U.S.-Chinese Relations in the Cold War, the U.S. has historically benefitted from accepting refugees, exiles, and defectors from its geopolitical rivals. Doing so illuminates the contrast between the U.S. open system and China’s repressive conditions under the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), underscoring America’s relative strength in the realm of soft power. Taking a charitable stance towards asylum seekers also signals to high-level defectors that the U.S. would likely accept them in the future and could encourage individuals to pursue this option if tensions between the U.S. and China continue to simmer.
During the Cold War, the U.S. accepted many refugees and asylum seekers from rival nations, such as Hungary, Cuba, and Vietnam, showcasing the appeal of liberal democracy over Communist totalitarianism. Even then, some detractors were fearful that Communist Party infiltrators would be among the migrants to our nation. Yet, these refugees have enriched our nation by becoming citizens and economically revitalizing many communities. Accepting Chinese asylum seekers would similarly signal the U.S.’s welcoming approach while providing benefits to the localities they settle in.
The administration should aim to admit more refugees from China in the next fiscal year (FY). As of July, only fourteen refugees from China were resettled in the U.S. in FY 2023 — a minuscule number of the total resettled from East Asia (.002%) and an even smaller number of the total refugees resettled this year (.0003%).
Congress can do its part by re-introducing and passing legislation strengthening protections for these asylum seekers. The Uyghur Human Rights Protection Act would designate Uyghurs and other ethnic groups being persecuted in Xinjiang as prioritized refugees of special humanitarian concern. This would make them eligible for Priority Two (P-2) processing in the refugee resettlement system, allowing them to access the U.S. refugee program without a referral from the UNHCR, an embassy, or an NGO. The bill also waives other requirements for these individuals and institutes protections for Chinese nationals who have been punished after seeking legal entry into the U.S. The Hong Kong Safe Harbor Act would also make political refugees from Hong Kong eligible for P-2 processing and provide them with similar protections and waivers.
Both bills had bipartisan support when introduced in the 117th Congress, and their merits and relevance remain unchanged.
Finally, providing priority refugee status to certain Chinese nationals would enable these migrants to enter as refugees safely and securely instead of embarking on a complicated, dangerous journey that further strains our overburdened asylum system. The most vulnerable cannot make the arduous journey through Ecuador, then by land to the U.S. border. Moreover, from a security standpoint, vetting and screening refugees overseas rather than after entry will help assuage any fears about asylum seekers arriving at ports of entry.
Determining how to respond to Chinese asylum-seekers requires balancing security and humanitarianism. The U.S. can and should adjust its immigration system to protect against threats while recognizing essential opportunities and the needs of the persecuted. Correspondingly, we should welcome Chinese refugees but not ignore the threat of hostile actors exploiting our immigration system.
A recent Wall Street Journal article highlights a series of incidents involving Chinese nationals posing as tourists who have attempted to penetrate military bases within the U.S. Such events should be taken seriously, as they illustrate how the CCP has approached espionage in the U.S. thus far.
Still, it is irrational to assume that a significant number of CCP agents are trying to stream across the border. It would be impractical for potential spies to fly to Ecuador, embark on a dangerous passage through one of the most lawless places on earth to reach Panama, and then go on a long, physically taxing, and unpredictable journey on land to the U.S. border where success in crossing is far from guaranteed.
Moreover, providing Chinese nationals from certain groups Priority 2 status in the refugee resettlement system would reduce the incentive to make such an arduous journey while also subjecting them to screening abroad.
Demonizing Chinese asylum seekers serves the interests of the CCP, which has leveled a pervasive and insidious propaganda campaign to convince the global public of American hypocrisy on human rights. The U.S. can most successfully combat this misinformation by welcoming the very people targeted by and escaping from this deceptive, heavy-handed regime.