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Chinese Puzzle: Why Migrants Are Leaving One Superpower Behind for Another

Between the years 2021-2023, there has been a consistent increase in the number of undocumented Chinese migrants detained at the US-Mexico border. In early 2020, only 3,000 Chinese migrants were detained at the southern border, by the end of 2023, the number of detained Chinese migrants surged over ten times to over 37,000. An Amnesty International report describes the journey of coming from Central America to the US-Mexico border as extremely dangerous. These migrants face treacherous physical terrains, such as jungles and roaring rivers, while also facing constant ransom threats from smugglers and even corrupt local law enforcement. To Chinese migrants, their journey is even more perilous. They start with navigating strenuous flights and boat trips hopping from one country to another all before finally arriving in Central America to start the next leg of their treacherous trip where they finally join the Central American migrants on their risky journey up north.

Many migrants from Latin America are coming to the United States to escape violence often associated with gangs and drug cartels. By contrast, the motive for Chinese migrants may be driven more by the traditional concepts of the American Dream – better financial opportunities, though human rights and geopolitics also play important roles. China, unlike Latin American countries, has comparably low crime rates. In fact, China’s crime rate is lower than that of the United States. So, Chinese migrants are wading across half of the world not necessarily in search of a safer environment but for better economic opportunities.

China had a booming economy for a long time. Its Gross Domestic Product (GDP) was growing at around ten percent (10%) a year for more than two decades, making it the “Global Factory” and the world’s second-largest economy. The country’s growing prosperity also convinced many of its citizens to stay and explore its numerous opportunities. However, China’s trade-based economy was devastated by the COVID-19 pandemic. When much of the world was reopening, the Chinese government insisted on keeping its doors shut. When it finally lifted the stringent lockdown policy, foreign investment was already busy leaving the country and headed for countries like Vietnam and India. Faced with factory shutdowns and massive layoffs, many Chinese people became desperate and chose to leave for America to pursue their economic future. As long as the Chinese economy remains stagnant, the lure of America as a promising destination will only appeal more to Chinese migrants.

Another reason for the rise of Chinese migrants may be related to the country’s worsening human rights violations. For example, the Uyghur people in China’s western Xinjiang Province are the victims to massive government-sponsored repression campaigns. The United States government officially describes what is happening in Xinjiang as a genocide. Facing a state-sponsored campaign to eliminate them, it is natural that the Uyghur people want to leave China for their safety. There has also been a rise of migrants from Hong Kong to Europe and the U.S. Although the handover of Hong Kong from the United Kingdom to China occurred in 1997, there has been an exponential growth in the Chinese government's presence in the city. Many Hong Kong residents are leaving their city due to growing fear of Chinese suppression. China under its President Xi Jinping is becoming more and more dictatorial, restricting political freedoms, including electoral “reforms” and freedom of the press. Seeing rapidly shrinking space for freedom, an influx of Chinese people have chosen to flee with or without immigration papers.

A third reason for the rise of Chinese migrants is geopolitics. US-China relations started getting worse under the Trump presidency and are showing no sign of improving under the Biden presidency. Because of the increasing hostility between the US and China, time is running out for these Chinese migrants before it is too late. They fear it would only be a matter of time before US-China relations are getting even more hostile and explosive, possibly over the issue of Taiwan. Meanwhile, America and its western allies are tightening the official channel of allowing Chinese migrants to emigrate. In other words, while their desire to come to America grows, the channel is narrowing.

Why should people in the legal profession care about this spike of Chinese migrants caused by economic, political, and diplomatic grievances?

Chinese migrants face a changing political landscape in America to seek forms of relief. In the past, many Chinese migrants filed for refugee status and made credible claims based on the Chinese government’s “One Child” policy. Beijing ended this policy back in 2016, seven years before the influx of immigrants. With the perceived success of the Chinese economy and growth and opportunities for education, Chinese mainlanders may face a tougher time convincing immigration officials on the grounds of political persecution, even though the Chinese political landscape continues to worsen and become more dictatorial. Adding to this, Chinese migrants face challenges in gaining sympathy when there is popular distrust of China – the COVID-19 pandemic led to a resurgence of Sinophobia, which is exemplified by the increase in anti-Asian hate crimes and the TikTok ban.

The rising confrontation between the U.S. and China has dangerous implications for Chinese migrants. Anti-Chinese and Anti-Asian hatred have a long history in the United States. After all, with the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882, the Chinese became the first ethnic group legally banned from coming to the United States. The public was in favor of this absolute ban as they feared competition from the Chinese migrants. During World War II, the anti-Asian sentiment was further demonstrated when Japanese Americans were herded into concentration camps – again, with popular support.

History, if forgotten, will repeat itself. Professionals in the legal community should remain sensitive to hurdles of various kinds facing these vulnerable people, continuing to be informed of the economic, social, and even geopolitical reasons leading to the spike of undocumented migrants from China. Outreach is also important, including building closer connections with the Asian communities because many migrants are living in shadows, often unable to request help due to language and cultural barriers multiplied by their fear of being reported to law enforcement and face deportation if they step out of hiding. Building trust with the Asian communities that anchor them is a promising first step to assist them in the long term, through legal clinics, volunteer work, and attending local community events would assist in exposing the migrants to options and resources while fostering a welcoming sentiment.


  1. Sharyn Alfonsi and Aliza Chasan, “Chinese migrants, some with the help of TikTok, have become fastest-growing group trying to cross U.S. southern border”, CBS News, February 4, 2024; accessed at on June 26, 2024.

  2. Amnesty International, “USA: ‘You don’t have any rights here’ : Illegal pushbacks, arbitrary detention & ill-treatment of asylum-seekers in the United States”, October 11, 2018; accessed at on June 26, 2024.

  3. Jessie Yeung, “The last Covid holdouts in Asia are throwing open their doors for travel – except for China”, CNN Travel, October 12, 2022; accessed at on June 26, 2024.

  4. Lindsay Maizland, “China’s Repression of Uyghurs in Xinjiang”, Council on Foreign Relations, September 22, 2022; accessed at on June 26, 2024.

  5. Yiran Yu, “Brain Drain and Brain Gain in Hong Kong’s Population Shuffle”, Migration Policy Institute, April 3, 2024; accessed at on June 26, 2024.


Colin Sun is a student at Rock Canyon High School in Highlands Ranch, Colorado. He will be a junior in the fall of 2024. Colin comes from an immigrant family and is interested in reading about history and politics and volunteering to help people with disabilities. In his spare time, he enjoys mountain biking.

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