As the economy falters, more and more Chinese migrants are making the dangerous journey to the US border to seek asylum

SAN DIEGO (AP) — The young Chinese man looked lost and exhausted as Border Patrol agents left him at a transit station. Deng Guangsen, 28, had traveled from southern China’s Guangdong province to San Diego over the past two months, crossing seven countries by plane, bus and on foot, including the dangerous crossing of Panama Darién Gap Jungle.

“I don’t feel anything,” Deng said in the San Diego parking lot, insisting on using the broken English he learned from the “Harry Potter” film series. “I have no brother, no sister. I have no one.”

Deng is part of a large influx of Chinese migrants into the United States on a relatively new and dangerous route that is gaining popularity with the help of social media. The Chinese were the fourth highest nationality Venezuelans, Ecuadorians and Haitians, Crossing the Darién Gorge in the first nine months of this year, according to Panamanian immigration authorities.

Chinese asylum seekers who spoke to The Associated Press and observers say they are trying to escape an increasingly repressive political climate and bleak economic outlook.

They also reflect a broader presence of migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border — Asians, South Americans and Africans — that made September the peak second highest month for illegal border crossings and the U.S. government’s fiscal year 2023 is the second highest on record.

The pandemic and China’s COVID-19 guidelineswhich included strict border controls, temporarily stemmed the exodus that increased dramatically under the presidency in 2018 amended the Constitution to eliminate presidential term limits. Meanwhile, emigration has increased again as China’s economy struggles to recover and youth unemployment is high. The United Nations has forecast that China will lose 310,000 people to emigration this year, compared with 120,000 in 2012.

It has become known as “Runxue,” or the teaching of running away. The term was originally used to circumvent censorship by using a Chinese character whose pronunciation is like the English word “run” but means “to moisten.” It’s now an internet meme.

“This wave of emigration reflects desperation toward China,” said Cai Xia, editor-in-chief of the online comment site Yibao and a former professor at the Chinese Communist Party’s Central Party School in Beijing.

“They have lost hope in the future of the country,” said Cai, who now lives in the United States. “Among them are educated and uneducated people, white-collar workers, small business owners and those from wealthy backgrounds.”-off families.”

Those who cannot get a visa find other ways to flee the world’s most populous country. Many show up at the U.S.-Mexico border to seek asylum. The Border Patrol arrested 22,187 Chinese for illegally crossing the border from Mexico from January to September, nearly thirteen times more than the same period in 2022. The number of apprehensions peaked at 4,010 in September, a 70% increase from August. The vast majority were single adults.

The popular route to the USA is via Ecuador, where there is no visa requirement for Chinese citizens. Migrants from China meet there with Latin Americans hike north through the once impenetrable Darién and through several Central American countries before reaching the US border. The journey is so famous that it has its own name in Chinese: Walk the Line, or “Zouxian.”

The monthly number of Chinese migrants crossing the Darién has gradually increased, from 913 in January to 2,588 in September. In the first nine months of this year, Panamanian immigration authorities registered 15,567 Chinese citizens crossing the Darién. In comparison, 2,005 Chinese hiked through the rainforest in 2022, compared to just 376 in total from 2010 to 2021.

Short video platforms and messaging apps offer not only on-site video clips but also step-by-step instructions from China to the US, including tips on what to pack, where to find guides, how to survive in the jungle and which hotels to stay Find out how much bribery of police officers is in different countries and what you should do if you encounter US immigration officials.

Translation apps allow migrants to navigate Central America independently, even if they don’t speak Spanish or English. The trip can cost thousands to tens of thousands of dollars and can be paid for with family savings or even online loans.

It is markedly different from the days when Chinese citizens paid smugglers, known as snakeheads, and traveled in groups.

With more financial resources, Xi Yan, 46, and her daughter Song Siming, 24, did not travel via the Ecuador-Mexico route, but flew via Europe to Mexico. With the help of a local guide, the two women crossed the border near Mexicali into the United States in April.

“The unemployment rate is very high. “People can’t find work,” said Xi Yan, a Chinese writer. “Small business owners can’t sustain their businesses.”

Xi Yan said she decided to leave China in March when she traveled to the southern city of Foshan to see her mother, but had to leave the next day when state security officials and police harassed her brother, telling him that his sister would not be allowed in the city. She realized she was still on the state’s blacklist, six years after she was arrested for gathering at a seaside site to remember Liu Xiaobo, a Nobel Peace Prize winner who was in a Chinese prison died. In 2015, she was jailed for 25 days for an online post commemorating the victims of the 1989 Tiananmen massacre.

Her daughter Song agreed to go with her. As a college graduate, the daughter had difficulty finding work in China and became depressed, the mother said.

Despite the challenges of surviving in the US, Xi Yan said it was worth it.

“We have freedom,” she said. “I used to get nervous whenever a police car came. Now I don’t have to worry about that anymore.”

Migrants trying to enter the United States in San Diego wait in an area between two border walls or for agents to pick them up in remote mountains east of the city covered with bushes and large boulders.

Many migrants are released with court dates in cities closest to their final destination, in a bottlenecked system that takes years to decide cases. According to Syracuse University data, Chinese migrants had an asylum grant rate of 33% in fiscal year 2022, compared to 46% for all nationalities Clearinghouse for access to transaction records.

Catholic Charities of San Diego is using hotels to provide shelter for migrants, including 1,223 from China in September. The average stay in the shelter for all nationalities is one and a half days. For Chinese visitors it is less than a day.

“They will be dropped off in the morning. In the afternoon they want to reunite with their families. They go to New York, they go to Chicago, they go to all kinds of places,” said Vino Pajanor, the group’s executive director. “They don’t want to be in a shelter.”

In September, 98% of Chinese arrests at the U.S. border occurred in the San Diego area. At the transit stop, migrants charge their phones, eat snacks, browse through piles of free clothing and get travel tips.

Signs at portable toilets and information kiosks, as well as loudspeaker announcements from a volunteer about free airport shuttles, are translated into several languages, including Mandarin. Taxi drivers offer rides to Los Angeles.

Many migrants who spoke to the AP did not give their full names for fear of drawing attention to their cases. Some said they came for economic reasons and paid 300,000 to 400,000 yuan ($41,000 to $56,000) for the trip.

In recent weeks, Chinese migrants have filled makeshift camps in the California desert as they wait to turn themselves in to U.S. authorities to file asylum claims.

Near the small town of Jacumba, hundreds huddled in the shadow of a section of border wall and under simple tarps. Others tried to sleep on large boulders or under the few trees there. Small campfires keep them warm overnight. Without food or running water, the migrants rely on volunteers to hand out bottled water, hot oatmeal and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.

Chen Yixiao said he went through a difficult journey to come to the United States. He said life at home had become difficult as some migrants faced problems with the government and others failed in business.

“I am very happy to be in the USA now. This is my dream country,” said Chen, who planned to move to his relatives in New York and find work there.

At The San Diego Transit Station, Deng was headed to Monterey Park, a Los Angeles suburb that became known as “Little Taipei” in the 1980s. But when he didn’t provide Border Patrol with a U.S. address, an agent scheduled an initial appearance for him in an immigration court in New York in February.

Deng said he had a job in Guangdong that required him to ride a motorcycle, which he considered unsafe. As he sat on the curb with his small backpack at the transit station, several Africans came up to him and asked questions. He told them that he arrived in the United States with $880 in his pocket.


Tang reported from Washington. Associated Press writers Christopher Sherman in Mexico City and Eugene Garcia in San Diego contributed.

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