Behind the story: How The Times covered the Chinese ‘border crossers’

Two people face away while sitting on grass in a park.
Chinese “border crosser” Shidong Liang, left, relaxes with his wife at Peter F. Schabarum Regional Park in Rowland Heights in June. Liang said he and his family undertook the arduous journey from their home in Hunan province to the U.S. because he didn’t want his children to be educated in Communist China.
(Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)
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The Times’ Jeong Park and Cindy Chang wrote a story detailing how Chinese migrants who entered the United States through the southern border are building their lives in California. The route the migrants took — flying to Ecuador and crossing the Darien Gap — shows new levels of desperation to reach American soil.

Park covers Asian American communities. Chang is normally his editor but reported the story with him because she speaks Mandarin.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

How did you find out about this story?


Jeong Park: We’ve been reading about the influx of Chinese migrants from other media outlets like the Chinese-language World Journal. That got us curious about how it’s playing out in Monterey Park, which has often been known as the first city that a lot of new Chinese migrants go to.

We were struck by the numbers from the State Department and Border Patrol, showing 2,000 to 3,000 Chinese migrants a month coming through the border, 10 to 20 times the usual number.

I started asking around: the Monterey Park mayor, City Council, organizations like the Chinatown Service Center. A City Council member mentioned Tzu Chi, a Buddhist foundation that does charity work. I contacted them, which led me to David Lu, who’s been organizing donation and food distribution events for Chinese migrants, and it all kind of went from there.

How did you find your interviewees?

Park: Cindy and I went to these food distribution events and talked to volunteers and migrants. We also connected with other migrants at another Tzu Chi event. It took a lot of effort and also a little bit of luck.

Cindy Chang: I knew one guy from when we covered the Taiwanese president coming to L.A. to meet Kevin McCarthy. I contacted him asking if he knew any of these migrants, which he did. At that point, we had already found enough migrants through other channels — but it’s the general principle that knowing somebody can lead you to someone else.


I also saw a Chinese flier in Monterey Park for a free English class. I called them and met some immigrants there. We tried to go to employment agencies in Monterey Park that I wrote about years ago, where immigrants go to find work. But it turns out a lot of that has moved online. Some of it also involves spending your time where you end up striking out.

How do you gain trust with migrants who might not feel like talking to reporters?

Chang: I start out introducing myself and asking them, “When did you get here?” drawing them into a conversation. Sometimes it’s explaining what the story is about and why I want to talk to them. There were some people that were uncomfortable talking with me. If I sensed that, I would just move on to the next person.

Some migrants didn’t give their full name during interviews in fear of retribution or other consequences. Why do you think a few of them were willing to speak on the record?

Chang: Most people did not want to give their full names because they’re worried about their family back in China. There was one man who came with his wife and three kids who said that he didn’t want his kids to be brainwashed by the Chinese government. I think people who are in that category where they’re really unhappy with the government, or may even be persecuted, are taking a stand. At the same time, he did not want his face in the photos, so we had to work around that.

What was the most challenging part of reporting this story?


Park: I think language is a big one. I’m trying to learn Chinese right now, but I am nowhere at a point where I can hold those conversations. I’m glad to be in a newsroom where we have people who can speak different languages.

Another thing that’s challenging is figuring out where to start. We didn’t want to do a story asking migrants at the border why they came, because that has already been done by other media outlets. The L.A. Times is really good at telling the stories of migrants as they are building their lives in California. Trying to figure out where to start to tell that story was really challenging.

What else did you learn?

Chang: The question of why the migrants want to come here so badly was really on my mind. The answer to that is varied. There was one person who told me he was involved in the recent “white paper” movement protesting pandemic lockdowns and government repression. There are people who do it for economic reasons. They didn’t feel like they could ever make enough money in China. I think behind that are questions about hope and the future, and people have lost that feeling when they are in China.

One woman told me that she didn’t even know the alphabet before she got here. It’s going to be a tough road for them to get legal status. I was really struck when I asked them, “Are you applying for asylum?” and the majority said they didn’t know how they were going to get legal status.

Park: It’s hard not to think about my own journey, because I came from Korea when I was 11 to L.A. I didn’t know any English. I wrote about this in a story last year. I have DACA [Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, which grants temporary work authorization and protection from deportation]. Everything had to go right for me to make it to where I’m at. For a lot of these Chinese migrants, everything has to go right for them to build a life here.