More Chinese asylum seekers enter US across Mexican border

Millions of undocumented migrants cross the United States' border with Mexico each year, including many from South and Central American countries. In recent months, they have been joined by a surging number of asylum seekers from China.

A humanitarian aid worker at a church in Brownsville, Texas, said her shelter now helps about 50 Chinese people every day, compared with just one ― or none ― per month in past years.

Chinese asylum seekers gather on their way to the Mexican border.

Data from US Customs and Border Protection shows 10,728 Chinese people were apprehended attempting to enter the US at the Mexican border in the first five months of this year. The number was 17 times greater than in the same period last year.

One Chinese man's journey

Li Xiaosan, 42, is a Chinese national from Henan Province who has applied for asylum in the US after he crossed the southern border with his son in February. Li now lives in New York, a five-minute drive from a street lined with shops with Chinese language signs.

Li Xiaosan, a Chinese man seeking asylum in the US, shows his room in New York.

Li's room is less than 10 square meters, and contains only a bed and a few other items. He shares it with another Chinese person.

"It's small, but it's enough for me," said Li with a smile.

Why he crossed the border

Li said the circumstances that compelled him to leave China date back nearly a decade, when he was self-employed and living in Guangdong Province. He often visited Causeway Bay Books in nearby Hong Kong, a bookstore which had sold many books critical of the Chinese Communist Party.

In 2014, Hong Kong students launched their so-called "Umbrella Movement," calling for democratic elections. Li also raised his voice with the protestors.

The 'Umbrella Movement' demonstrations in 2014 called for democratic elections in Hong Kong.

"Hong Kong was China's last free territory. The Chinese government promised that Hong Kong would be free, but it broke that promise," Li said.

Li participated in the ‘Umbrella Movement' protests in Hong Kong in 2014.

In 2020, the Hong Kong National Security Law cracked down on anti-government movements. Li continued to repeatedly criticize Chinese President Xi Jinping's leadership in social media posts.

One day, six police officers went to the home of Li's relatives with a warning about his posts. Li himself was taken to a police station and ordered to delete all his social media comments, even old ones from ten years ago.

"If this continues, our children and even their children will not be able to say what they think. I could not live without hope, like a slave. That's why I decided to leave China," Li said.

He said he believes many of his fellow Chinese citizens will seek to migrate to the US, because they have no hope that China's current political situation will improve.

An exile

Li chose to enter the US through a harsh route, information about which has been recently spreading on Chinese social media. Some South American countries such as Ecuador do not require them to have entry visas. Chinese people can then head about 3,700 kilometers north to the US border by car, boat, or sometimes even on foot.

Li and his son

Some Chinese asylum seekers enter the US with tourist visas. But, Li said his income and other factors made him ineligible for that visa, so the tough overland route was his only choice.

Life-threatening exile

In January, Li flew with his son to Ecuador via Turkey, using 13,000 dollars he had earned from selling his car and other belongings.

They proceeded to Colombia, partly by bus, where they encountered many obstacles.

Inside a bus traveling in Colombia

In Colombia, a man pretending to be a taxi driver stole about 5,000 dollars of their cash and a mobile device. The device's GPS identified the man's location and he and his accomplices were arrested by the police, but the funds were not returned.

Men allegedly behind the theft of Li's cash and mobile device are shown being taken away by police.

In Panama, Li and his son packed food in their backpacks and walked through the jungle for two days to evade border authorities. He said he paid cash to a criminal organization for protection in dangerous areas where robberies frequently occur.

In Honduras, they were caught by police and had to bribe them to be allowed to continue. In Mexico, Li also had to pay cash for protection in every area controlled by criminals. He said he heard that some people died falling out of boats after they opted to travel by sea to avoid land checks.

'Freedom is not free'

Li said his son now attends a local high school. They are currently receiving support from acquaintances and a local Chinese organization.

Li talks with other Chinese people who also entered the US.

In May, Li and other Chinese people gathered to receive clothes and household goods at a support event held in New York's Chinatown. Li said most of them had also walked across the US border as he had, and now share information on living in the US. He said he frequently exchanges messages on his mobile phone with his friends.

Li Xiaosan

Li said, "Freedom is not free," and some people even perish on their way to a better life. But he said the risks will not deter asylum seekers like himself from making the journey.

"This route of crossing the border into the US from China is now spreading rapidly on the Internet. I think more and more Chinese people will head to the US," he said.

Li shows one of the routes to the US border displayed on his mobile device.