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In fiscal year 2023, which ended in September, U.S. border authorities encountered Chinese immigrants more than 52,000 times at U.S. borders, and numbers continue to be high in 2024. In each of the previous three years, the annual number hovered below 30,000.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection does not release specific age or gender data about immigrants. The agency separates encounters data into adults traveling alone, families with children and unaccompanied children.
Chinese immigrants are coming to the U.S. for jobs and more freedom — the same forces driving other immigrants who come to the U.S. from all over the world.
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Following an increase in the number of Chinese immigrants crossing the U.S. southern border, former President Donald Trump and other Republicans have said that these are "military age men" with ties to China’s military or allegiance to the Communist Party of China.
"From China, they had 28,000 people in the last few months, 28,000," Trump said in a Feb. 4 interview with Maria Bartiromo on Fox News. "That's — what's he doing, building an army? And they were mostly men, almost all men from the age of 18 to 25. So what's that all about?" Trump did not specify who the "he" was, but it could have been China’s President Xi Jinping, based on Trump’s full comments.
Bartiromo asked Trump, "Are they being directed by the Communist Party to come here?" Trump replied, "I believe so."
Other Republican lawmakers and pundits have recently made similar comments about "military age men" and immigrants from China or other countries, including Rep. Mark Green, R-Tenn, Republican South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem and conservative pundit Charlie Kirk.
Some political figures have used the phrase "military age men" about immigrants without singling out China. House Speaker Mike Johnson, R-La., in a floor speech described immigrants as "military aged," saying, "These are not huddled masses of families seeking refuge and asylum."
All of these comments are misleading. U.S. Customs and Border Protection does not release specific age or gender data about immigrants at the border, and "military age" means different things in different countries. We found no evidence such as news reports, anecdotes or government data showing that immigrants from China are coming to the U.S. at the direction of China’s military.
Chinese immigrants are coming to the U.S. in search of jobs and freedom — the same forces driving other immigrants who come to the U.S. from all over the world. Immigration attorneys and advocates told us that a significant portion are young men, but that’s not unusual for any immigrant group.
The same claim that Chinese immigrants are equivalent to an invasion has circulated on social media since at least last year; we rated it False in May 2023.
Despite the uptick in the number of Chinese immigrants encountered at the border, they still make up a small portion of all border encounters, according to immigration data. Immigrants from Latin American countries such as Venezuela and Mexico have had substantially more encounters with border authorities.
Border officials’ encounters with Chinese immigrants at U.S. borders have risen steadily over the past three years, but surged in fiscal year 2023, the 12-month period that ended in September.
In that year, border authorities encountered Chinese immigrants more than 52,000 times at U.S. borders. In each of the previous three years, the annual number hovered below 30,000. In the first three months of fiscal year 2024, there have been 23,027 encounters with Chinese immigrants, nearly as many as all of fiscal year 2022.
Most Chinese migrants who reach the southern border are adults traveling alone, according to CBP data. However, the data does not disclose the age or gender of people stopped at the border. CBP separates encounters data into adults traveling alone, families with children and unaccompanied children.
The Associated Press reported that Chinese immigrants are flying to Ecuador as a starting point for their journeys to the U.S. because Ecuador does not require a visa. They spend thousands of dollars on travel and then cross the Darien Gap connecting Colombia with Panama.
Xiaosheng Huang, a Las Vegas immigration lawyer who mostly represents Chinese immigrants, said the immigrants coming to his firm are mostly males ages 25 to 40 because "they are strong enough to weather the risks along the way."
Young people also are skilled at using social media to find information about how, when and where to cross the U.S. southern border.
Chinese for Affirmative Action, a decades-old California-based group that protects the civil and political rights of Chinese Americans, spoke with about 100 Chinese migrants on a recent trip to the border, spokesperson Sin Yen Ling said. The organization said that 81.3% of migrants they talked to were men, and most were ages 35 to 54. Staff have also reported talking with Chinese migrants who migrated with multiple generations, including grandparents and children.
Ling said she views the term "military age men" as fear-mongering. "Military age" means different things in different countries with varying requirements for military service. In China, there is no compulsory military service. Men from China crossing the border typically lack formal military training, Ling said, unlike people from countries that require all men to join the military.
Immigration lawyers and advocates say many factors have driven larger numbers of people in China to emigrate to the U.S.
Ling pointed to economics. China’s unemployment rate for 16- to 24-year-olds hit 21.3% in June; after that, the government stopped releasing the numbers.
Xi’s "recent crackdown on industries such as tech, real estate, and education where young people have traditionally sought jobs have contributed to the high unemployment rate," Ling said.
China’s gross domestic product grew in 2023, but it has been showing signs of strain.
Strict policies and lockdowns during the COVID-19 pandemic also drove emigration when China eased its restrictions, which happened later than most other countries.
A decrease in legal avenues for Chinese people to migrate to the U.S., high asylum success rates for Chinese immigrants and an inability to be deported from the U.S. also likely contribute to increased Chinese migration at the southern border.
The number of U.S. visas issued to Chinese nationals has been dropping since 2015 but plunged during the COVID-19 pandemic. The visa numbers have been increasing in the past few years but still haven’t reached pre-pandemic levels. This is partly a result of fraught diplomatic relations between the U.S. and China, and it leaves crossing the southern border in search of asylum as one of the most feasible options for Chinese migrants.
People from China have a much higher success rate for getting asylum in the U.S. than people from other countries, according to data from Syracuse University’s Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse.
Even when Chinese people are denied asylum, the U.S. government can’t easily deport them, because China doesn’t accept its nationals who have been deported from the U.S. This can serve as another incentive for Chinese immigration as people cannot be indefinitely detained by U.S. immigration authorities and therefore must be released into the U.S. when they cannot be returned to their home countries.
"Effective returns are the cornerstone of a functional and credible migration system," the nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute wrote in December 2022. "If irregular migrants face little risk of deportation, they have less reason to comply with orders to leave voluntarily."
Still, there’s no evidence the uptick in Chinese migration at the border is because of a directive from the Chinese Communist Party. And "there is nothing unusual about migrants from any country being ‘military age,’" Adam Isacson, director for defense oversight at Washington Office on Latin America, a group that advocates for human rights in the Americas, told PolitiFact in 2023. He added that it’s not unusual for people to flee persecution from countries that have poor relationships with the U.S.
Clayton Dube, senior fellow at the University of Southern California U.S.-China Institute, said he has seen no proof that Chinese migrants are coming to the U.S. "motivated by anything other than individual desire to forge new lives in the U.S."
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Newsweek, Is China Sneaking Military Personnel into the U.S. Via Border? What We Know, June 16, 2023
Truth Social, Post by South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem, Feb. 5, 2024
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PolitiFact, Donald Trump: 'The Mexican government ... they send the bad ones over' Aug. 6, 2015
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