Chinese Migration Up at Border as US Marks Anniversary of Repeal of Exclusion Act

Washington — As the U.S marks the 80th anniversary of the repeal of the Chinese Exclusion Act, thousands of Chinese immigrants are crossing the U.S.-Mexico border, mostly for the same reasons as their countrymen did more than a century ago. 

Zhongwei Wang made that journey this spring through Central America with his family.

“When I knew there was a way to leave China, I felt overjoyed, really overjoyed,” he said. 

According to the U.S. Border Patrol, from January through September, more than 24,000 Chinese migrants crossed the border without authorization, about 13 times the number recorded during the same period last year. 

“They see a lack of opportunity. They see the Chinese economy stagnating. There’s also been a lot of frustration with how controlling the Chinese government is, how many restrictions there are on their lives, and people have been researching how to get to the United States,” said Madeline Y. Hsu, a history professor at the University of Maryland. 

Hsu spoke at CRCEA80, the gathering on December 5 of nearly 400 representatives from 121 Chinese-American organizations who came together to mark the 80th anniversary of the repeal of the Chinese Exclusion Act, the only U.S. law that prohibited immigration based solely on race. 

Wang’s journey 

Wang arrived with his parents, his wife, and their two children in May. They left China’s Anhui province, he told VOA’s Mandarin Service, because of the Chinese government’s aggressive COVID-19 lockdown and human rights issues.

The family flew from Hong Kong to Turkey to Quito, Ecuador, which offers a 90-day visa exemption for Chinese passports. 

From there, they walked through the Darien Gap, a dangerous path in the mountainous jungle between Colombia and Panama that tens of thousands of migrants used in 2022 on their way to the U.S. “We had to climb four hills on the first day,” he said. 

His wife was carrying her 14-month-old son on her back. His mother, who was in poor health, couldn’t walk after climbing the first hill, but a fellow migrant helped along the way.

Those without the means to obtain a visa sometimes choose this dangerous route. Wang said he originally planned to apply for a tourist visa to come to the United States, but at that time the waiting list for a tourist visa interview to the United States was more than six months.

While he said he objected to China’s COVID-19 lockdown policies and human rights record, he had also protested against the Chinese government after he arrived in the U.S., which prompted local law enforcement to visit his uncle’s home in China. 

“We must not stop [protesting the Chinese government] overseas, despite their threats to intimidate my family, my uncle, and the others. So, when we are overseas, we cannot keep a low profile. If we don’t speak out when [our families] are threatened, they [the Chinese government] know this method is effective and they will threaten others again,” he said.

Chinese Exclusion Act 

The Chinese Exclusion Act, which passed in 1882, was the only law in U.S. history that singled out a specific ethnic group. President Franklin D. Roosevelt officially ended the act on Dec. 17, 1943, and granted Chinese Americans equal citizenship rights for the first time. 

Renata Castro, a Florida-based immigration lawyer, says today’s Chinese migrants, if they are unable to come to the U.S. with an existing visa, are finding other ways to flee the world’s second-most populous nation, including showing up at the U.S.-Mexico border to seek asylum. 

“Mainly because these are individuals that are escaping the oppressions of the Chinese government. … But most importantly, they are fleeing the lack of economic expectations they have in China right now,” she said.

When people come to the U.S. seeking protection because they have suffered persecution or are afraid that they will suffer persecution based on race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular group, they are permitted to file for asylum regardless of their immigration status.

But to apply for asylum, a person must be present in the U.S.  

Chinese migrants who cross into the U.S. without authorization usually wait for agents from U.S. Border Patrol to pick them up. Once the agents process these migrants, many are assigned court dates and released in cities close to their final destination, adding to an immigration court system that is taking about five years to decide cases. 

According to October data from Syracuse University’s Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, Chinese migrants were granted asylum nearly 67% of the time in immigration courts over the past two decades — one of the highest rates by nationality. The reasons, per the Christian nonprofit ChinaAid, is the continuing decline in human rights conditions, higher accessibility to information on social media about crossing the U.S. Mexico border, and restrictions on religious freedom. 

Out of 108,273 Chinese migrant applications, 77,711 were granted asylum. Asylum was denied to 29,635 and 927 applications received another type of immigration relief. 

VOA’s Tracy Wen Liu contributed to this report.