California sees surge in Chinese illegally crossing border from Mexico

A pair of fences separates Mexico, left, and the U.S. south of San Diego.
A pair of fences separates Mexico, left, and the U.S. south of San Diego.
(Bill Wechter / AFP/Getty Images)

The number of Chinese immigrants illegally crossing the Mexican border into California has skyrocketed in recent years, the result of a lucrative smuggling industry, mass migration from China and a diversifying pool of migrants settling in the United States.

Between October and May, the first eight months of the fiscal year, Border Patrol agents in the San Diego sector apprehended an estimated 663 Chinese nationals, compared with 48 in the entire previous fiscal year and eight in the year before that, according to data provided by U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

Before then, “we just weren’t getting [Chinese nationals],” said Wendi Lee, a spokeswoman for the Border Patrol.


Lee said criminal organizations involved in smuggling maximize their profits by transporting Chinese immigrants, often charging premiums to get them across the border.

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“We’re talking anywhere from $50,000 to $70,000 per person,” Lee said. “The farther you travel ... the more arrangements these criminal organizations have to make, the more expensive it will get.”

China has become one of the world’s leading sources of immigrants, according to a February report by the Migration Policy Institute.

“High-skilled and high-value emigration from China is rising fast, while low-skilled and unskilled emigration is stagnant — a divergence that has been widening since the late 2000s. The emigration rate of China’s highly educated population is now five times as high as the country’s overall rate,” the report said. “China’s wealthy elites and growing middle class are increasingly pursuing educational and work opportunities overseas for themselves and their families, facilitated by their rising incomes.”

Many of the foreign students now enrolled in U.S. universities hail from China, a result of their country’s emerging economy and growing middle class.

The Chinese account for the fifth-largest population of immigrants in the U.S. illegally, according to an October report by the Migration Policy Institute. An estimated 285,000 resided in the country in 2013.

Non-Mexican immigrants apprehended by the Border Patrol generally are turned over to the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Office of Enforcement and Removal Operations, which is responsible for determining whether they will be detained or released while their cases are reviewed by an immigration court, according to ICE.

“ICE makes custody determinations on a case-by-case basis, taking into account all aspects of the person’s circumstances, including whether the individual represents a threat to public safety or is a possible flight risk,” the agency said.

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Some request political asylum. Others ask to return to their home countries.

Xiao Wang, a lecturer of Chinese studies at UC San Diego, said economic opportunity is a common factor in Chinese immigration. Small-business owners travel to sell products — perfumes, electronics and cosmetics — in the United States.

“It’s people who are trying to make money,” Wang said. “I think this is happening more and more.”

But Muzaffar Chishti, director of the Migration Policy Institute’s office at New York University’s School of Law, said it’s important to understand the bigger picture.

“It’s tempting to say that this is a dramatic rise. In the scheme of things, it’s not a dramatic rise,” he said. “[China] is the world’s largest country.” In that sense, he said, the recent increase in border crossings represents “a drop in the bucket.”

Some people who cross the border illegally become victims of human trafficking, Lee said.

Last month, authorities discovered 12 such immigrants in the attic of a home in San Diego’s City Heights neighborhood. They were being held without food, with very little water and with no access to a restroom, Lee said. Five of them were Chinese.

Two suspected smugglers were taken into custody, along with all of the immigrants.

Sanchez writes for the San Diego-Union Tribune.


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4:25 p.m.: This article was updated throughout to add context.

11:07 a.m.: This article was updated with additional context and reaction.

This article was originally published at 9 a.m.