Posted on March 30, 2023

Inside the Boom in Chinese Migrants at the Southern Border

Han Chen and Stef W. Knight, Axios, March 29, 2023

Thousands of Chinese migrants and asylum seekers have arrived at the U.S.-Mexico border in recent months, and many more are heading north after passing through the treacherous Darién Gap jungle between Colombia and Panama.

Why it matters: It’s another example of people from well beyond the Americas seeking refuge in the U.S. through the southwest border — and reflects the ongoing backlash to Chinese President Xi Jinping’s harsh domestic policies.

  • “So the word is out, right?,” Rep. Vicente Gonzalez, a Texas border Democrat, told Axios. “If you can get to our southern border, you have pretty good shot at getting in, and it has changed the demographics.”

Zoom in: Axios spoke with a Chinese migrant in his 40s, who requested to be identified by the pseudonym Sam out of concern for his safety.

  • Sam crossed the U.S.-Mexico border last month with his 16-year-old son — a journey that took them through 11 countries, including Thailand, Turkey, Ecuador, Panama and Guatemala, he told Axios.
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  • Like many other Chinese migrants, Sam and his son took advantage of Ecuador’s visa-free travel, and then began their journey north to the U.S.


By the numbers: Many more migrants with stories similar to Sam’s are likely to arrive. During the first two months of this year, nearly 2,200 Chinese nationals have crossed into Panama through the thick jungle of the Darién Gap, according to migration data from Panama’s government.

  • That’s more than the 2,000 Chinese migrants who made the trip in all of 2022 — which itself was a huge jump from the 77 counted in 2021.
  • “This exodus signifies Chinese people’s resistance to President Xi’s regressive policies and draconian lockdown measures,” Sam told Axios. “It’s like an animal stampede before an earthquake.”

The big picture: There has long been Chinese migration at the southern border, going back to the 1980s.

  • But the numbers have ticked up in recent months because of a variety of factors, such as the reopening of China’s borders and growing backlogs for legal immigration pathways to the U.S.
  • Chinese nationals also are granted asylum at a relatively high rate in the U.S. — 58%, according to recent government data. That’s compared to an average of 10% for asylum seekers from the Northern Triangle, which includes Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador.
  • Bob Fu, president of the Christian nonprofit ChinaAid, which advocates for human rights in China, has noticed the uptick in Chinese migrants at the southern border. He said his group now receives several assistance requests from these migrants every week.
  • He gave three reasons for this uptick: Further deterioration in human rights conditions and religious freedom in China; a rollback of more stringent U.S. border policies that were in place under President Trump, and social media posts about people crossing, which have triggered a bandwagon effect.