Despite intense interest from lawmakers and the media about Chinese migration through the southern border, reliable data sources about these migrants are limited.

One of the available sources is the annually updated Ecuadorian Statistical Registry of International Entries and Exits. This database offers an invaluable glimpse into the characteristics of Chinese migrants entering Ecuador, the only mainland country in the Western Hemisphere that offers visa-free travel to Chinese nationals. 

Since most Chinese migrants enter the Americas via Ecuador, these records can reasonably be used to draw inferences about irregular Chinese migration. This assumption is supported by the net entry/exit data, which show that Chinese nationals entered Ecuador 48,381 times in 2023 but only left 24,240 times. The resulting entry/exit deficit was 24,141—by far the highest number of any nationality. 

Several other data points from the latest release, which summarizes 2023 international entries, further strengthen our knowledge of irregular Chinese migration. For example, U.S. Customs and Border Protection data has shown a sharp increase in encounters with Chinese nationals in recent years. This increase is mirrored by the Ecuadorian travel data, which indicates a record high of 23,859 Chinese nationals traveled to Ecuador at least once in 2023, an increase of almost 235% compared to the previous five-year average.

Some of the new data points, however, complicate our assumptions about who these migrants are.

Areas experiencing repression remain overrepresented

Our analysis of last year’s data found that Hong Kong and Xinjiang, which have experienced acute levels of social and political repression by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in recent years, were overrepresented as cities of origin logged in Ecuadorian entry data.

This finding is replicated in this year’s data, with Hong Kong having the second highest rate of travel to Ecuador per million and Xinjiang having the sixth. 

Hong Kong can be explained to some extent by the region’s relatively high economic development, airport presence, and overall population, making regular business travel and overrepresentation in the entry data plausible. 

However, two consecutive years of high proportional numbers from Xinjiang defy easy explanation. High levels of travel from the prefectures of Aksu and Altay heavily skew Xinjiang’s numbers. Aksu is 80% Uyghur, while Altay is majority Kazakh – which could indicate that the travelers from this region may not be Han Chinese or at least have first-hand familiarity with the CCP’s system of repression in this region.

The most reasonable explanation for Xinjiang’s high numbers are that residents are especially motivated to escape the repressive CCP security apparatus in the region.

However, the numbers from this dataset need to be stronger to indicate that persecution is a necessary driver for irregular travel from China to Ecuador. Only two provinces saw no travel to Ecuador in 2022 and 2023: Qinghai, which is only 51% Han Chinese, and the Tibetan Autonomous Region, which is 86% ethnic Tibetan. 

Both provinces have experienced large-scale human rights violations but have yet to record the same levels of outbound travel as Xinjiang and Hong Kong. This suggests that other factors outside of possible social, religious, and political concerns are also significant in determining whether a region has a high amount of irregular emigration.

Declining Northeastern regions also high

The provinces in China’s “rust belt” in the northeast have experienced a significant population decline in recent years, losing 30% of their population from 2010 to 2020. 

In this region, despite their plummeting populations, Heilongjiang, Jilin, and Liaoning are all in the top third of origin regions among Chinese travelers to Ecuador when adjusted for population, as indicated in this table by an asterisk.

Region2023 Rate of Travel to Ecuador per Million
Shanghai Municipality274
Hong Kong Special Administrative Region257
Beijing Municipality161
Heilongjiang Province*123
Fujian Province28
Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region24
Macau Special Administrative Region19 
Jilin Province*19
Hubei Province11
Shaanxi Province11
Liaoning Province*9
Source: Author’s tabulation of data from Instituto Nacional de Estadística y Censos, Registro Estadístico de Entradas y Salidas 2023

These regional reflections that China’s intensifying political persecution and a slowing economy likely contribute to irregular migration are supported by the broader Chinese demographic profile drawn from the Ecuadorian travel data.

Most travelers male, middle class, under 40

Chinese migrants encountered at the U.S.-Mexico border are often ominously referred to as “military-aged males.” 

This data corroborates the fact that the migrants are largely young and male. In 2023, 71% of Chinese entrants to Ecuador were male, and 55% were between 15 and 39 years of age. Three factors almost certainly explain these demographics, none indicating a national security risk. 

First, due to the one-child policy, China has a significant gender imbalance that has left many men struggling to find women they could marry. The pressure created by this imbalance has already created a market for trafficking within China, and it is reasonable to assume that young Chinese men could be motivated to undertake the journey if they believe it will make it easier to find a spouse.

Second, social media has made the otherwise logistically daunting journey far more manageable and appealing, and young people are more likely to feel comfortable using social media to navigate the journey. 

Finally, middle-class young men in China are the demographic most likely to have the means and capability to organize and complete the expensive and grueling route to the US via Ecuador. 

Occupational data from entrants to Ecuador corroborate this explanation: Almost 80% were either high or middle-skilled professionals, while less than 1% (and only two in total) listed “military” as their field of work.


There is no singular characteristic that explains why increasing numbers of asylum seekers from China are presenting themselves at the Southern border. Stifling political repression, a slowing Chinese economy, the emergence of social media as a conduit for irregular travel, and a perceived limited window of opportunity are all mutually compounding factors that together make the record 24,376 encounters with Chinese nationals recorded by US CBP in FY 2024 to date easier to comprehend.

One popular explanation favored by some commentators is that these Chinese migrants are spies. As we have explained before, this interpretation is highly dubious

American policymakers interested in effectively rolling back the CCP should instead reject their assumption that any ethnic Chinese person owes them fealty and aggressively promote practical, bipartisan solutions that protect anti-communist dissidents and advance American Democracy as an alternative worldview. 

Olivia Enos at the Hudson Institute has convincingly made the case for stepping up enforcement of the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act, the Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act, and the Global Magnitsky Act to target CCP human rights violations.

At the level of immigration policy, the U.S. should better enable Chinese dissidents to access our refugee system. This can be done by passing the Uyghur Human Rights Protection Act and the Hong Kong Safe Harbor Act, which would allow dissidents from these areas to enjoy Priority Two (P-2) processing in the refugee resettlement system, allowing them to enter the U.S. refugee program without a referral from the UNHCR, an embassy, or an NGO. 

Despite their authoritarian structure, the CCP does not control the narrative over irregular Chinese migration to the U.S. Whether the U.S. decides to shape this narrative before it shapes us in the eyes of people seeking freedom in China, East Asia, and the world is up to us.