Illegal Chinese immigrants are flocking to San Diego, smuggled over the border with Mexico

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 08 June, 2016, 8:09am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 08 June, 2016, 8:09am

The number of unauthorised Chinese immigrants coming to San Diego has skyrocketed in recent years, the result of a lucrative smuggling industry, mass emigration from China and a diversifying pool of unauthorised immigrants settling in the United States.

Border Patrol agents in the San Diego sector apprehended an estimated 663 Chinese nationals between October and May, compared with 48 Chinese nationals last fiscal year, five in fiscal 2014 and eight in fiscal 2013, according to data provided by US Customs and Border Protection.

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

Lee said criminal organisations involved in smuggling maximise their profits by transporting Chinese immigrants, often charging each several thousands of dollars to get them across the border from Mexico.

“We’re talking anywhere from US$50,000 to US$70,000 per person,” said Lee. “The further you travel from, the more arrangements these criminal organisations 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. 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,” the report said.

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

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

Generally, non-Mexican immigrants apprehended by the Border Patrol are turned over to the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Office of Enforcement and Removal Operations, which is responsible for determining whether they will remain detained or be released while their case is 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.

Some request political asylum, others request to return to their home country.

Xiao Wang, a lecturer of Chinese Studies at the University of California, San Diego, said a common factor of migration from China is economic. 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. It’s closely related to Chinese culture.”

Once one person emigrates, more will follow, she said.

“In past years, it may have been that they take a boat, and there was a lot of hardship (associated with emigrating). Perhaps nowadays there are more advanced ways of entering the States,” Wang said.

But it’s important for people to keep in mind the bigger picture, according to Muzaffar Chishti, director of the Migration Policy Institute’s office at the New York University School of Law.

“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. You would say it’s still a drop in the bucket. So it really depends what side you’re looking at this from.”

And while fewer people are emigrating to the US from Mexico, there’s a growing number of people emigrating from countries such as China and India.

“If you just look at the general trend of Chinese migration, it’s one of the highest from all over the world,” he said.

“Whenever you have an increase of immigration, there is always an increase in illegal immigration because people want to join their families.”

Lee said some become victims of human trafficking.

Authorities discovered 12 unauthorised immigrants in the attic of a home in San Diego’s City Heights neighbourhood on May 6. They were being held without food, very little water and no access to a restroom, according to Lee. Five of the immigrants were Chinese.

All of the immigrants were arrested, along with two smugglers.