Most of the migrants who enter the United States through its southern border come from Mexico or somewhere in Central America. But not all of them. Recently, Chinese migrants have crossed the U.S.-Mexico border in record numbers.
Echo Wang, a reporter for Reuters who was part of a team that interviewed dozens of Chinese citizens in South Texas, spoke to the Texas Standard about what’s driving so many people to make the trip.
This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:
Texas Standard: I think a lot of people might be surprised that so many people are actually able to get out of China in the first place to make a trek to the U.S. Typically, where do they go first? What is their first transit point?
Echo Wang: So most of the people – actually all of the people, with one exception – that I spoke to for this story, they flew first to Hong Kong. And then from Hong Kong they flew to Turkey, to Istanbul; from there they took a flight to the capital of Ecuador, because Ecuador is the only country in South America that is visa-free for Chinese visitors.
Wow. And so from Ecuador, moving north to the border between Mexico and the U.S.?
Yes. And people, a lot of them that I spoke to, spend over a month on the roads traveling from Hong Kong all the way to the border.
That is incredible. So what seems to be driving these relatively large numbers of Chinese citizens to the border with the U.S. and Mexico?
One of the things we’ve learned from the reporting is the economic aftershock of COVID. Because you might know this very well, China went through a very strict period of COVID lockdown. So a lot of people that we spoke to, a lot of the migrants, they had been small business owners. A lot of them had online stores selling from makeup to clothing to shoes to building supply. And a lot of their business got crushed during the COVID lockdown. So that’s what was described to me as a trigger for the trip.
So tell me about the role of social media in all of this. Are they actively going online and trying to search out ways to get out of China or ways to come to the U.S.?
A lot of people describe to me that they actually came across this by accident. A lot of people describe to me, for example, they just one day saw a video describing how to go to America on their Douyin feed; Douyin’s the Chinese counterpart of TikTok. And then some of the people didn’t understand what was that about, so they did some research – and because of the algorithm, you just keep getting more videos of a similar content. That’s how everything started for many of the people we spoke to.
I find that really surprising, given that we know that China has a lot of control over its Internet content there. And the fact that this would be even available in China, I guess it speaks to something about China’s efforts to try to keep a lock on what the Chinese people know about issues like this.
That’s a great point. One thing we actually found out watching all this Douyin videos is a lot of the daily users, they kind of package this not into like “how do we flee to America” or “how do we migrate to America” – they actually kind of use hashtags such as “international traveling” or like “trekking through the rainforest.” It’s almost like a vacation you’re taking instead of a very dangerous journey you’re taking.
Very interesting. And this prevents authorities from checking what it is that they’re searching for, that kind of thing?
We don’t know that for sure, but people we spoke to said this is kind of a clever way for them to supplement around censorship. One thing that we also found out about kind of the information that this migrant would learn from the Internet is a lot of kind of mixed information, a lot of false information. And a lot of them read this from platforms like Douyin or YouTube. And also just to your point, for example, one of the Internet Douyin influencers – his name is Baozai – his original account posting very detailed information about how to come to America in this way was blocked by Douyin and by other online social media platforms.