For years, the border separating the United States from Mexico has been the focal point for immigration debates in America—both concerning Mexicans and, more recently, the surge of families and children fleeing Central America and entering the US through Mexico.
But this summer, a new trend is emerging on the section of the border where San Diego meets Tijuana: The number of Chinese immigrants caught crossing into the United States from Mexico has skyrocketed.
From October 1, 2015 to May 31, 2016, Border Patrol agents apprehended 663 Chinese immigrants at that part of the border, according to a report last week in the Los Angeles Times. It's a major spike compared to previous figures: In the entire 2015 fiscal year, only 48 Chinese nationals were apprehended in that area. The year before that, just eight.
The jump amounts to an 8,188 percent increase over the course of three years—and there are still four months left in the current fiscal year, so the tally for the full year is expected to be even higher.
Compared to the rest of the border, the surge of Chinese immigrants in the San Diego area seems like little more than a blip on the immigration radar. In the first seven months of this fiscal year, Border Patrol agents logged 223,871 apprehensions along the Southwest border, according to data from the agency obtained by VICE. Immigrants from Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras made up 95 percent of that total.
"When you really look in the overall scheme of migration, it's an incredibly small number of people," said Muzaffar Chishti, one of the directors at the Migration Policy Institute, a think tank focused on immigration. "If the numbers become 20,000 next month, I may say there is something else going on. But on the basis of these numbers, they do not rise to the level of an alarm or a fundamentally different pattern of migration."
The Southwest border is composed of nine different sectors, stretching from the Pacific coast to the Rio Grande Valley. When you look at the entire Southwest border, the trend flattens out. Border Patrol apprehended 1,211 Chinese immigrants along the border in the first seven months of this fiscal year. A year ago, agents caught 1,327 Chinese immigrants trying to cross from Mexico, and in the 2014 fiscal year, they caught 1,693. Even if the numbers are on pace to be higher this year, the overall portrait doesn't match the same dramatic spike that's taking place in San Diego.
Even still, there are a considerable number of Chinese immigrants entering the United States by way of Mexico. For some of them, it's their best shot to get here.
Of the 2 million Chinese immigrants living in America, roughly 10 percent do not have legal status, which means they entered the country illegally or overstayed a visa, according to the Migration Policy Institute. For immigrants hoping to live and work in the US long-term, but without the legal paperwork, overstaying a visa can be the simplest route—you arrive legally, and you simply don't leave. China has a relatively high approval rate for business and tourist visa applications (90 percent in the 2015 fiscal year, according to data provided to VICE by the Department of State), but that still leaves some prospective immigrants without a legal pathway to enter the US.
"We are really talking about a much lower class of people, who do not have access and connections to get legal visas," said Peter Kwong, a professor of urban affairs and planning at Hunter College and a leading scholar on Chinese immigration.
Kwong told VICE many of these poorer migrants are leaving the country due to the economic stagnation in China over the last few years. "A lot of factories are laying off people, exports are slowing down," he said. "So therefore, you have fewer options in China, and if there is a possibility of leaving China and going to a foreign country, you would do that."
A spokesperson for the United States Border Patrol told the Los Angeles Times that smugglers could charge anywhere from $50,000 to $70,000 to bring a Chinese national to Mexico and then across the border. The price may seem steep for immigrants who supposedly lack the means and connections to obtain a visa, but Chinese immigrants have historically paid a high price for illicit passage to America, according to Elliott Young, a professor of history at Lewis and Clark College and the author of Alien Nation, a book on the history of Chinese migration to the United States.
He's heard of Chinese immigrants paying $30,000 for trips to the US that involve routes through Asia, Africa, or Latin America. "My guess would be that a lot of these people don't actually have $30,000," he told VICE. "They're either borrowing the money from friends and family or becoming indebted to businesses or smuggling networks."
Another factor to consider, said Young, is that many Chinese immigrants have familial or community ties in the US already. The presence of longstanding Chinese communities in cities like New York and San Francisco could "make it easy to migrate," he said.
Whether those migrants get legal work permits or not, Young said he could see the logic behind borrowing money to come to the US—especially as a way out of economic turmoil back home.
"You could pay off those debts within a year or a couple of years," he told VICE. "Given conditions in China and diminishing prospects in China, that might make rational economic sense."
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