Li Xiaosan and his teenage son recently arrived in the United States from China. They are among a growing number of Chinese migrants arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border seeking asylum.
According to U.S. Customs and Border Protection, 4,366 migrants from China encountered Border Patrol officials after crossing the southern border without authorization from October 2022 to February 2023. That compares with the 421 migrants who were encountered during the same period in 2021 and 2022.
Xiaosan told VOA's Mandarin Service that he and his 16-year-old son traveled for more than 50 days from Hong Kong to Macau to Istanbul to Ecuador. From there, they traveled through six Latin American countries, including walking on their own through the Darien Gap, a dangerous mountainous jungle between Colombia and Panama where tens of thousands of migrants crossed in 2022 on their way to the U.S.-Mexico border.
On Tuesday, the U.S., Colombia and Panama announced a two-month operation to curb migrant smuggling in the Darien Gap using “new lawful and flexible pathways for tens of thousands of migrants and refugees as an alternative to irregular migration,” but without specific details on how the process will take place.
The announcement also included investments in job creation in the Colombian and Panamanian border communities with the goal of providing more economic opportunities to reduce human smuggling.
More migrants with stories similar to Xiaosan’s are likely to make the same dangerous journey to the U.S. border, according to Chen Zhong, an immigration lawyer living in Los Angeles, who asked VOA Mandarin to use a pseudonym for fear of retaliation from the Chinese community since he assists undocumented Chinese migrants who have recently arrived in the country.
Zhong has been working with Chinese migrants for more than 20 years. He told VOA that some people share their success stories on the app Telegram “and it spreads to 10 [people], and then [the information] spreads to a hundred. Many people know that this is a route that can be taken.”
Xiaosan and his son arrived on February 23 in Brownsville, Texas. They were detained by the U.S. Border Patrol and remained in U.S. government custody for five days.
After they were released, an immigrant advocacy group in Texas helped them continue to their destination —Albany, New York, where a Catholic organization helped them get settled.
They arrived in Albany on March 1 and have their first immigration court date in October.
The Migration Policy Institute estimates that about 4% of the 11 million unauthorized immigrants in the United States are from China.
Chinese migration experts say the increase in migrants from China at the U.S.-Mexico border is due to economic conditions, the Chinese government's aggressive COVID-19 lockdown policies, the deterioration of religious freedom, human rights issues and the rollback of U.S. border policies put in place under former President Donald Trump that banned travelers from mainland China because of the pandemic.
Data from the U.S. Department of Justice show that Chinese nationals are granted asylum at a rate of 58%, compared with 10% for Guatemala, 9% for Honduras and 11% for El Salvador, often because it’s easier for Chinese nationals to prove their asylum claims.
Protecting his oldest son
Xiaosan told VOA he has filed for asylum protection in the United States.
A rights activist from Henan province, Xiaosan participated in protests during Hong Kong’s Umbrella Revolution in 2014 and has continued to speak up against the Chinese government's authoritarianism. He left China after his last encounter with Chinese federal officials.
“Last year, they came to my neighborhood posing as pandemic prevention officials,” he said. “They shoved me into a car and threatened me and my family.”
After that, Xiaosan decided it was time to leave China.
Xiaosan said his son is attending high school classes and is adapting well. Xiaosan said he hopes to set up a nonprofit organization to show Chinese people how to file U.S. immigration applications and how to find jobs. He is sharing his stories on Twitter and blogs about his experience with U.S. immigration law.
Xiaosan’s wife and 9-year-old son are still in China. He said it was “too dangerous” to bring everyone together.
“So far, [Chinese] police haven't bothered them,” he told VOA.
Before he left China, he visited the final resting place of some of his ancestors to say a final goodbye. But he has not shared his journey through the Darien Gap with his parents.
“I do not dare to tell them what happened. I only told them that we traveled for the Chinese New Year,” Xiaosan said.