China Resumes Cooperation in Deporting Illegal Chinese Immigrants From the US

China Resumes Cooperation in Deporting Illegal Chinese Immigrants From the US

Trends in Illegal Crossings at the US Southern Border

The Biden Administration has been widely criticized for its immigration policy, implementing what his opponents on the right call a de-facto “open door” policy. Accounts of violent crime, often anecdotal, by South American migrants in places like Virginia and New York have made headline news within the last year. Debates over immigration policy are unsurprising, particularly in an election year. However, the current conversation rests not merely on South American migration but on the unprecedented levels of illegal Chinese immigration through the southern border and the resulting concern for national security and stability in US-China relations. 

In April 2024, the Department of Homeland Security released a memo asserting that illegal Chinese immigration over the southern border had increased over 8,000% since March 2021 – to just over 24,000 migrants crossing or attempting to cross the border from January – March 2024. The report highlighted potential national security concerns of such a high amount of Chinese immigrants crossing without inspection at the border (the typical policy of CBP for ground border crossings). These concerns, detailed below, merit due consideration as they could substantially impact US national security, regardless of party politics.

How and Why are Chinese Migrants Crossing From the Southern Border?

Over the past two years, social media has been a key source in attracting migrants to the often perilous trek across the US southern border. Platforms like Douyin (China’s version of TikTok) offer viral how-to videos explaining in precise terms how to cross the border (some explain and show on screen the specific points in the border fence which are penetrable). A simple hashtag search displays this information, giving the perception that crossing the US border is much easier than it actually is. Through platforms like WeChat, migrants can also connect with “coyotes”, who are in turn economically incentivized to post these videos that downplay the danger of the journey. 

Many Chinese nationals begin in Ecuador (a country which has no visa requirement for Chinese citizens). They are then connected with smugglers and make their way through the Darién Gap (a dense jungle connecting Columbia and Panama). This stretch of territory, and indeed much of the trek up through Mexico, is dominated by cartels. The Darién Gap, for example, was recently seized by the Gulf Clan, thought to be one of or the largest cocaine exporter in the world. From there, migrants are brought along a notoriously dangerous route to the US border, where they may or may not make it across undetected.

There are several explanations for why thousands of Chinese are choosing to illegally cross the border, other than their often misinformed perception of how easy it is to cross the border. Post-COVID, many Chinese nationals are unhappy with the continued stringency of Chinese policies. China’s “zero-COVID” policy has caused severe harm to many small businesses, which are unable to sustain themselves under strict operations policies and a slow economy. The US’ relative economic recovery from the pandemic has made it an attractive alternative, despite the obstacles to entry. Even university graduates have attempted the Darién Gap in search of economic opportunity. However, entrance for Chinese nationals to the US since COVID is more difficult, as visas were restricted following the outbreak from Wuhan. 

Do Chinese Immigrants Through the Southern Border Pose a National Security Risk?

Due to the demographics of most Chinese migrants (largely single men aged 16-35), politicians and newscasters on the right, including former President Trump, assert that the US faces a severe national security threat from such high levels of immigration. These claims are fanned by an incident in March 2024, in which a Chinese national broke into a US Marine base in California, refusing to leave and ultimately being detained by US forces. Right-leaning think tank, Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, articulates these claims in a May 2024 report which asserts that China’s known expansive intelligence capabilities and past attempts at espionage from within the US in itself merits strict scrutiny of incoming Chinese migrants. They argue that these migrants may be subject to CCP intelligence laws, which mandate that all citizens abide by and support national security objectives / missions regardless of whether they hold a position within the party or government. 

In addition, the House Select Committee on the Strategic Competition Between the US and CCP released a report in April 2024 regarding China’s role in the spread of fentanyl in the US. Fentanyl is currently one of the DEA’s primary focuses due to the recent trend of the drug being laced into cocaine, marijuana, and other illegal narcotics already in circulation, greatly increasing mortality risks among users. The House report claimed that Chinese companies produce nearly all illicit fentanyl precursors and are a key driver behind global trade of the drug. While the Chinese government and illegal Chinese producers may be pushing the drug around the world and into the American market, it is misleading to claim the average Chinese migrant crossing into the US (though illegally) is doing so with the intention to disperse illegal drugs. Indeed, top US law enforcement officials reviewed a potential connection and found none in 2023. Fentanyl is one of the many issues for which the US requires Chinese cooperation.

Processing of Chinese Migrants at the Southern Border

Many Chinese migrants that are processed through the border file asylum claims. Typically, the requirements to meet the asylum-threshold are fairly rigid. By definition, a claimant must have a demonstrated fear of persecution due to their political, religious, ethnic, or racial identity or social affiliation. Economic claims do not qualify for asylum. Perhaps due in part to this, many Chinese migrants are seen carrying crosses (Chinese Christians are a known persecuted group in China, alongside many ethno-religious minorities like the Uyghurs). Even so, it would be a mistake to ascribe all religious claims from Chinese migrants to the need to circumvent asylum standards – and a clear politicization of the situation.  

While a percentage of asylum claims may have merit, that does not preclude the CBP from needing to conduct thorough inspections of migrants of all nationalities crossing the border. The Biden Administration has been duly criticized for watering down inspection policies for Chinese migrants in the last year. In April 2023, CBP was directed to drastically reduce the number of interview questions for Chinese nationals apprehended for illegal crossings (from about 40 to 5 questions). Coupled with CBP’s often ill-equipped translation capabilities, such a stark decrease in vetting of incoming immigrants does potentially give credence to national security concerns – if not for Chinese migrants specifically, than for US immigration overall. 

On this point, it is important to note, CBP is simply not built to handle the high numbers of immigration the US has seen in the last several years, leading to years-long backlogs in judicial proceedings for migrants. Lower vetting thresholds for Chinese immigrants is but one policy meant to alleviate CBP of the constant onslaught of incoming cases.

US-Chinese Cooperation to Deport Chinese Immigrants

Earlier this year, the US and China began conducting high-level discussions to increase the number of deportations of Chinese nationals in the US. Up until that point, China had been largely uncooperative in supporting US immigration policy. While the details of joint operations will likely remain below the radar, the move comes amid several recent visits by high-ranking US officials to Beijing, including Secretary of State Blinken and Secretary of the Treasury Yellen. 

Beijing has not offered this kind of cooperation since then-Speaker Pelosi visited Taiwan in 2022. This shift may represent the first step toward resuming binational talks on a variety of issues, including anti-narcotics, climate change, and economic support to Russia, Iran, and other malign state actors. Yet, despite the encouraging step, Chinese-American cooperation is by no means guaranteed, and in an election year, will be heavily scrutinized on both sides of the aisle. Though both parties undoubtedly desire a level of cooperation with China, particularly on economic and foreign policy issues, there remains potential for present binational cooperation to capitulate to domestic political concerns.