Immigration to the U.S. often happens in waves, marking distinct turning points in who arrives at the border. Niskanen recently detailed several of these stages. In the contemporary area, the first wave occurred from the 1990s through the late 2010s, when overwhelmingly high percentages of Mexican nationals migrated to the U.S. primarily for economic reasons. Beginning in the 2010s, immigration from the Northern Triangle countries of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras dramatically increased, bringing with it a spike in unaccompanied minors and family units encountered at the border. 

Since 2022, politically and economically motivated migration by people fleeing repressive dictatorships in Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela has become a larger share of irregular migration. Migration from these countries accounts for 22% of all encounters at the southern border in fiscal year 2024 so far.

Focusing solely on these waves does not tell the full immigration story at any given time– immigrants from Mexico still comprise the largest single migrant group, for example. Nevertheless, this framework remains a helpful heuristic for understanding demographic changes at the border. 

The first quarter of 2024 has revealed early but significant shifts in this regard. Ecuador, China, India, and Colombia are each poised to play a greater role in shaping migration for the remainder of the decade. While nascent indicators from these countries may not always grab headlines because of their limited scope, each contains elements of an underlying departure from recent means and motives for irregular migration.


There are four major reasons why Ecuador will continue to wield outsized influence as both a country of origin and a country of transit for migrants.

First, the country is in the midst of a grave period of violence and political turmoil. In January, gunmen stormed a TV station in Guayaquil and took several reporters hostage. This event was a spectacular encapsulation of Ecuador’s rampant crime, fueled by the increasing involvement of Mexican cartels over a booming narcotics trade, neglected security service and the prison system, and economic downturns, which have all contributed to a dramatic increase in homicide rates that nearly doubled annually since 2020. 

The 2023 murder rate—approximately 40 per 100,000 people—was the highest ever recorded in Ecuador, positioning it as one of the most violent nations in Latin America. The outbreak of violence has contributed to a spike in irregular migration from Ecuador. Over the last six months of 2023, encounters with Ecuadorian nationals at the southern border rose by 96%. 

Second, while Ecuadorians currently represent only 5% of all migrants encountered at the southern border, they make up 18% of recent migrant arrivals in New York City. Of the 50 U.S. zip codes with the largest Ecuadorian communities, 45 are in the tri-state area. This will likely continue as more Ecuadorian migrants journey to New York to connect with local diaspora networks.

These increasing levels of migration will likely strain New York City’s already over-taxed asylum seeker services, and provide fodder for debates on how many migrants larger cities can reasonably accommodate. 

Third, Ecuador is also home to approximately 474,000 Venezuelan migrants who will likely migrate out of Ecuador in the coming years. These migrants already face significant challenges and threats to their safety in Ecuador, and further economic downturns or dangerous living conditions could compel them to move to neighboring countries or the U.S.

Finally, Ecuador is a pivotal entry point for Chinese nationals as the only country in South, Central, or North America that doesn’t require visas for Chinese citizens. As a result, most Chinese migrants encountered at the border begin their journeys in Ecuador. China has already suspended embassy services for the public in Ecuador, limiting the ability for Ecuadorians to travel to China. If Ecuador becomes unsafe enough to prompt China to issue travel restrictions or increase scrutiny towards travelers, Chinese migrants will be forced to take longer, costlier routes–which in turn might slow irregular Chinese migration.


Irregular migration from China has increased alongside irregular migration from India, and shares many of the same features. Both countries are middle-income, separated from the U.S. by a considerable distance, and have extensive and mostly affluent diaspora networks who arrived in the country primarily through traditional migration channels. 

However, irregular Chinese migration is increasing steadily from more diverse geographic regions and is triggered by more complex and wide-reaching domestic issues. As Niskanen has written, regions in China with rampant persecution— like Xinjiang and Hong Kong —are proportionally overrepresented in recent Chinese arrivals to Ecuador. Still, it is reasonable to assume that many of these migrants are also driven by a sluggish Chinese economy and long wait times for U.S. visas, and have subsequently opted for irregular migration as a faster avenue to reside, work, and study in the U.S.

One likely driving force behind the uptick in Chinese migration is the emergence of social media channels that demonstrate how to migrate to the U.S. via previously less well-documented routes like the Darién Gap. Information has always played a role in enabling migration, though before, those information channels were limited primarily to local, ethnic, and religious networks with a lower potential for widespread dissemination. Now, Chinese nationals with aspirations to reach the U.S.-Mexico border can find detailed tutorials from strangers on Douyin, the Chinese equivalent of TikTok, that help guide them through the journey. 

As a result, China now makes up a plurality of migrants arriving from outside of the Western Hemisphere.

Much has been made of the fact that a majority of these migrants appear to be “military-aged males.” As Niskanen has written, China’s One Child policy has fostered a gender imbalance, resulting in droves of Chinese men finding themselves without traditional commitments like a steady job, a spouse, and children that typically prevent people from migrating. The incentives to migrate have never been higher for single young men—already the group that has historically been the most willing and able to take serious risks with their life decisions.

In this case, Chinese migration will continue to rise, with profound implications not only for immigration but also for U.S.-China relations and Chinese relations with Latin America.


While Indian and Chinese irregular migration patterns share many similarities, they diverge in two aspects.

First, irregular Indian migration appears to be more geographically isolated. Reports from the southern border indicate that most Indian migrants hail from the northern states of Haryana and Punjab. The driving force behind irregular migration from these states appears to be threefold: 1) A lack of viable options for acquiring a U.S. work visa, 2) concerns about persecution for being Sikh under the increasingly Hindu-nationalist governing Bharatiya Janata Party, and 3) a spike in land prices in the region that has enabled migrants to sell their land and afford the costly journey. 

Second, Indian nationals may face more hurdles in reaching the border than Chinese travelers. While Indian nationals don’t need a visa to enter El Salvador or Bolivia, Ecuador rescinded its visa policy towards India in 2019 due to alleged misuse. Conversely, it has yet to rescind its visa policy for Chinese nationals–despite clear indicators it is being used to enable irregular migration and not business or tourism.

Additionally, in November 2023, the U.S. prompted El Salvador to institute a travel fine for Indian passengers to target irregular Indian migration. In the months since, Indian encounters in the U.S.-Mexico border fell by about 35%. It is unlikely that other countries will adopt similar fines for Chinese travelers given that China has a much larger economic footprint in the region than India does.

If Indian encounter numbers continue to drop, this could foreshadow a future U.S. strategy where deterrence is imposed not through punitive physical measures but through costly financial disincentives. 


Colombia has constituted a significant but underreported percentage of the increase in irregular migration. In FY 2023, Colombian nationals made up 6% of all encounters at the southern border. Like Ecuadorians and Venezuelans, they are also overrepresented in the population of asylum seekers in New York City, constituting approximately 13%. 

Two trends may significantly alter the flow of Colombian migration for the rest of the decade.

First, U.S.-Colombia relations under President Gustavo Petro may worsen, particularly if former President Donald Trump is reelected. While Colombia has traditionally been a strong U.S. ally in the region, Petro is notably more skeptical of America than his predecessors. He may be less likely to cooperate with a Trump administration regarding migration plans and priorities.

Second, the Colombian peace process is also facing new challenges. The “total peace” policy pursued by the Petro administration, which included unilateral ceasefires with several armed groups to pursue negotiations, has hit recent stumbling blocks. Petro was recently forced to suspend one of these ceasefires with the Estado Mayor Central (EMC), conceding that the EMC had used peace negotiations to re-arm. Other groups similarly benefited from the unilateral ceasefires, while the largest paramilitary group is not presently engaged in ceasefire negotiations despite recently signaling a willingness to do so.

If the security situation in Colombia deteriorates, even more Colombians may opt to migrate to the U.S. irregularly in FY 2024. This is important because Colombia is the third-largest country in Latin America by population, and a large wave of irregular immigration originating from Colombia would put serious strain on already overtaxed U.S. border resources.

As with Ecuador, Colombia’s status as a U.S. ally and recipient of significant security assistance means that while a significant immigration wave may be easier to head off, it would also challenge the emerging narrative that irregular migration is being shaped by anti-American regimes in the hemisphere.

There are some reasons to be optimistic, however. Through the establishment of a safe mobility office in Colombia, Petro has signaled a willingness to aid American migration efforts. If the economy continues to improve, the security situation can be contained, and Petro can be convinced that cooperation is mutually beneficial, Colombia could emerge as a key conduit for safe, orderly, and limited migration and serve as a potential model for the region.

Policy Responses

As requested by their officials, Ecuador should be designated for Temporary Protected Status (TPS). This would protect Ecuadorian migrants in the U.S. from undue removal and provide relief to cities like New York with large populations of asylum seekers by helping those already in the U.S. get work permits. Apart from the economic benefits this would bring for Americans, it would also enable more Ecuadorians to send remittances back home, buoying Ecuador’s economy.

The U.S. should also attempt to channel irregular Chinese migration through humanitarian pathways by passing the Uyghur Human Rights Protection Act and the Hong Kong Safe Harbor Act. Both bills would make some persecuted Chinese nationals eligible for Priority Two (P-2) processing in the refugee resettlement system and grant critical protections and waivers to those in need.

The U.S. can also work to strengthen its relationship with India by taking measures to cut back wait times, continuing to hire more staffers at Indian consulates, and sharing intelligence and expertise with Indian law enforcement arms that have been set up to deter human smuggling networks. The U.S. has recently favored India by selecting Indian H-1B visa holders as a test population for its Domestic Visa Renewal Pilot program, and we should continue to work to improve our consular efficiency to help deter Indian nationals from migrating via irregular means.

Finally, the U.S. should leverage its migration diplomacy with Colombia and offer increased protections and legal work pathways for Colombian nationals in exchange for further assistance guarantees in managing migration in South America, particularly from Ecuador and Venezuela. 


In recent years, U.S. immigration policy has placed an outsized focus on short-term, reactive solutions. Without concrete, well thought out policies in place–especially in a potentially turbulent election year– the U.S. risks being caught off guard, which would degrade our migration management capacities and our global image.

That is why it is critical that even the most minute shifts in immigration patterns are noted and adapted to. Migration from Ecuador, China, India, and Colombia might be relatively small compared to that from other countries, yet each presents unique and complicated political and security challenges with serious implications for U.S. foreign policy. Recognizing these trends, considering their implications, and implementing targeted and nuanced policies for each should be a priority for policymakers in 2024 and beyond.