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Soaring Numbers of Chinese Nationals Arrested at US Southern Border as Communist Party Intensifies Oppression

Leo Timm
Leo Timm covers China-related news, culture, and history. Follow him on Twitter at @kunlunpeaks
Published: November 23, 2023
Chinese nationals hold up documents while waiting arrest by U.S. border control officers. 2023 has seen a massive increase in the number of Chinese fleeing the communist regime for the U.S. via the overland route. (Image: Getty Images)

More and more people from mainland China are attempting the difficult and illegal journey from Latin America to the United States via the Mexican border, with over 22,000 arrested by U.S. Customs and Border Patrol officials this year. 

That’s a 1300-percent increase from 2022, as well as the years before, when typically the number of Chinese arrested at the southern border would be in the low thousands. By contrast, more than 4,000 citizens of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) were arrested in the month of September alone, itself a 70-percent increase from August. 

Chinese who opt to enter the U.S. via the southern border typically have to pay tens of thousands of dollars to be led or smuggled. Their trip usually starts with a flight to Ecuador, a country that allows visa-free travel from the PRC. 

But the price is one an ever-greater number of people are willing to pay, given China’s deteriorating economy and the worsening state of human rights under the communist regime. 

From the beginning of 2020 to late 2022, hundreds of millions of Chinese spent extended periods under strict “zero-COVID” lockdowns, which only ended when protests erupted in cities across the country that November. 

Time to ‘rùn’

The loss of basic personal freedoms, and in many people’s cases, economic livelihood, led to the birth of an online neologism called “run.” It is written using the Chinese character 潤, which has the meaning of “moist” or ‘“glossy,” but was chosen because its phonetic Romanization, “rùn,” resembles the English word. 

Chinese interested in “run”ning away research means of leaving the PRC, “with the aim of settling in a more developed country with greater freedoms,” as described in a recent article by Radio Free Asia. 

“The idea of leaving really took off during the grueling lockdowns, mass incarceration in quarantine camps and compulsory testing of Xi Jinping’s zero-COVID policy,” the article notes. 

Illegal immigrants from China have cited economic hardship, political oppression, and other causes as the reason for their decision to enter the U.S.

“To undertake this journey, Chinese migrants reportedly spend around $5,000 to $7,000 for self-guided trips, while others pay smugglers fees of up to $35,000, or three times what migrants from Central or South America typically pay. The ability to afford such high fees suggests that while some migrants come from working-class backgrounds, many are from the middle class. Among those apprehended are small business owners, educators, and even a former finance student in Australia. The difficulty of obtaining a U.S. visa is often cited as a reason for undertaking such a costly and dangerous journey,” an article published this June by The Diplomat reads. 

In addition to tips and guides on how to make the continent-spanning trek from Ecuador to the U.S., Chinese who resolve to follow through are even advised on how best to surrender to customs officials and ease themselves through the migration process. 

Millions of people cross America’s southern border illegally every year, meaning that despite the large absolute rise in Chinese illegal immigrants, they still make up a tiny portion of the total. 

The U.S. is home to roughly 5 million people of Chinese descent, and has accepted 66,000 refugees from the PRC. Another 88,000, including individuals persecuted for their political activity or religious beliefs, have requested asylum with the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services. 

Hidden dangers 

The rapid rise in illegal immigration from China has sparked concerns about how the CCP could exploit it as a means of inserting intelligence operatives and military personnel into U.S. territory.

In June, Congressman Mark Green (R-TN), chair of the House Homeland Security Committee,  called attention the security risks posed by PRC citizens being allowed into the U.S. following apprehension, despite no verification of their identity

According to Green, a Border Patrol chief had given him information claiming that many of the Chinese nationals arrested had “known ties” to the CCP’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA), he said at a June 14 press conference. 

Joseph Humire, the executive director of the Center for a Secure Free Society and an expert on Latin American issues, told YouTube host Chris Chappell in a recent program that the PRC uses mass illegal immigration as a part of its strategy to destabilize and distract the U.S. in conjunction with Beijing’s partners, such as Venezuela, Russia, and Iran.

“China capitalizes on that weaponized migration strategy to insert its own operatives.”