FILE - An Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent watches cars as they wait to enter the United States from Tijuana, Mexico, through the San Ysidro port of entry in San Diego, Dec. 3, 2014..
FILE - An Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent watches cars as they wait to enter the United States from Tijuana, Mexico, through the San Ysidro port of entry in San Diego, Dec. 3, 2014..

A surge in Chinese migrants seeking a better life in the United States by illegally crossing the U.S.-Mexican border is capturing the attention of U.S. media.

The San Diego Union-Tribune broke the story earlier this month, saying it obtained U.S. Customs and Border Protection data showing the agency caught 663 Chinese nationals making the illegal crossing from Mexico into San Diego, California, from last October through May.

The newspaper said the latest apprehensions compared to only 48 Chinese migrants being caught along that part of the border in the previous 12 months, reflecting an increase of more than 13 times for the current fiscal year, with four more months to go.

Since the data emerged, several migration analysts have been quoted in U.S. news reports trying to explain the significance of the jump in illicit border crossings by Chinese migrants.

Putting surge into context

One of them is Elliott Young, a history professor at Lewis & Clark College and author of a book on the history of Chinese migration to the United States, Alien Nation.

“One thing to keep in mind is not to blow this out of proportion,” Young told VOA’s China 360 podcast. “The numbers in terms of overall undocumented migration are relatively small."

Young said the hundreds of Chinese migrants apprehended around San Diego, California, in the past year represent only a fraction of the total number of undocumented Chinese living in America.

FILE - Border Patrol agent Richard Gordon, a 23-ye
FILE - Border Patrol agent Richard Gordon, a 23-year veteran of the agency, examines broken dried branches that indicate human traffic near the border fence where illegal immigrants enter the U.S. in San Diego, California.


A Washington-based research group, the Migration Policy Institute, published a report last year, estimating a total of 210,000 unauthorized Chinese nationals in the United States in 2012.

Young said many of those Chinese used different methods to enter the United States.

Other illicit strategies

"About half of the undocumented Chinese population are not people who cross the border clandestinely,” he said. “They are people who have legal tourist and other visas and simply overstay them."

Getting a U.S. tourist or business visa for the purpose of overstaying might seem like a simpler way for Chinese to migrate to America, in contrast to crossing a U.S. border illegally. But it is not an option available to everyone.

A Chinese immigration researcher at New York's Hunter College, Peter Kwong, told the Vice news site this month that there is a class of relatively poor Chinese people who do not have access or connections to get legal visas. He said many of those migrants have been leaving China because of its economic stagnation of the last few years.

But crossing from Mexico to the United States illegally can be an expensive proposition.

The San Diego Union-Tribune quoted a U.S. border patrol spokeswoman as saying smugglers who organize the crossings charge Chinese migrants $50,000-$70,000 a person.

Chinese migration historian Young said few of those migrants can pay those smugglers' fees up front.

"Usually they have to make some kind of down payment of a few thousand dollars and then have to work off their debt in the United States by working in a business,” he said. “They work in restaurants, garment factories and other, often Chinese-owned, businesses."

FILE - A server writes down what a customer bought
FILE - A server writes down what a customer bought from his food cart at Bo Lings Chinese restaurant in Kansas City, Mo. Chinese migration historian Young said few migrants can pay smugglers' fees up front; many work at restaurants to pay back debts.

Using historical techniques

Young said the phenomenon of Chinese migrants illegally crossing the Mexican-U.S. border has a long history.

He said it dates back to an 1882 U.S. law that banned Chinese labor migration for six decades – a ban that some migrants skirted with the help of transnational merchant networks and Chinese hometown associations.

"There have been lots of historical cases of Chinese people being brought into the United States illegally on ships, in railroad coaches, hidden in cars, through tunnels, on airplanes – every imaginable way that humans can think of to cross the border,” Young said. “The Chinese were among the first to invent these ways of evading border control."

The Lewis & Clark College professor said Chinese migrants still use such methods to reach the United States as a way of bypassing contemporary U.S. immigration laws.

U.S. State Department rules limit the number of employment-based and family-sponsored immigrant visa applications that can be processed in the current fiscal year to 25,620 per country. A State Department report said there were 260,265 China mainland-born applicants on its immigrant waiting list as of November 2015.

Young said even if the State Department accepted no further Chinese applications, it would still take more than 10 years of waiting for prospective Chinese immigrants to clear the list.

“It means that because our immigration restrictions are making it virtually impossible for people to legally migrate, they are forced to go through these other clandestine, illegal routes," he said.