Chinese migrant details journey across US-Mexico border: 'A lot of difficulties'

NEW YORK CITY - At just 23 years old, Chinese migrant Miss Chen decided to take a dangerous journey across the U.S.-Mexico border.

A video and a few photos captured on her iPhone during the process are now reminders of the life she left behind.

  • Stephanie: "Tell us about the journey."

  • Translator: "I have gone through a lot of difficulties to come to America."

FOX 5 NY’s Stephanie Bertini interviewed Miss Chen through a translator at her immigration attorney’s office. Edward Cuccia has been based in Manhattan’s Chinatown for decades. He says he’s managing an increase in immigration cases related to people from China.

  • Stephanie: "What do you make of the surge? What kind of context can you give us?"

  • Edward Cuccia: "It’s tough, it's really hard to put in context because China is huge. It's the middle class I think that are being squeezed in a way that they weren’t before – economically, religiously.

‘It’s not allowing us to be a Christian’

When Stephanie asked Chen why she left China, she said, through a translator: "My family doesn’t agree for me to be a Christian, and also the country, it’s not allowing us to be a Christian."

According to the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, "religious freedom conditions in China continue to deteriorate."

The Pew Research Center said last year, "China’s constitution says ordinary citizens enjoy ‘freedom of religious beliefs’, but authorities closely police religious activity." The Migration Policy Institute is tracking a surge of Chinese migrants.

"They all support me to come." Ms. Chen

"Some of the push factors in China, you know, people were pretty frustrated with how restrictive the COVID lockdowns were," says Julia Gelatt, associate director of the U.S. Immigration Policy Program at Migration Policy Institute. "Economy there has had some challenges in the wake of COVID with high unemployment, and I'm sure some people are sick of living under the authoritarian government China has."

Like people from other countries long have, Chinese migrants are following the long-established routes of human smugglers.

"Through the internet, through videos on TikTok and other social media, we have seen a spread of information about how migrants can come to the United States," Gelatt said.

  • Stephanie: "Did you pay a human smuggler?"

  • Translator: "Yes."

She says it cost around $50,000 (American dollars) to get here.

  • Stephanie: "Where did you get $50,000?"

  • Translator: "It’s all from my church brothers and sisters. They all support me to come."

U.S. Customs and Border Protection data shows the sharp increase in CBP encounters with people from China at the southern border.

In the 2021 fiscal year, the number was 450. By 2022, it was 2,176, and in 2023, it was 24,314. So far this year, it's 24,376.

How did Ms. Chen get to the US?

Chen says the journey out of China started with a plane ride to Thailand, and then to Turkey. She says from there – Tijuana, Mexico, where she walked into California. Stephanie asked who she went with.

  • Translator: "About 12 people, 12 migrants."

  • Stephanie: "From China?"

  • Translator: "Yes."

  • Stephanie: "How did you get to New York?"

  • Translator: "My snakehead bought a ticket." (A snakehead is a term used for a human smuggler)

When it comes to the surge of asylum seekers seeking refuge in NYC, the data shows only 500 Chinese migrants in city shelters as of March. In city records, the Chinese demographic is so minor that it falls in the "other" category.

"It’s important to realize that there are hundreds if not thousands of Chinese arriving in New York City every month," Ken Guest, professor of Anthropology at Baruch College.

Ken is a Chinese immigration expert with insight on this new wave of Chinese asylum seekers crossing the U.S./Mexico border and going to New York City.

"Because they are able to engage and interact with local Chinese economic and social structures, they are not popping up on our radar screen, they're not showing up in the statistics in the shelters," Ken said.

Chen says she found a new religious home-base.

  • Stephanie: "When you got to New York, what did you do?"

  • Translator: "I kept looking for the church and the church's brothers and sisters."

She also connected with relatives who were willing to help her. Back home, she says she was a school teacher.

  • Stephanie: "Do you miss China?"

  • Translator: "No."

She left her parents and her younger sister behind. But just like other migrants from China are reporting, freedom is worth the journey.

  • Stephanie: "Do you believe the Chinese government is oppressive?"

  • Translator: "Yes."

At the immigration office in Manhattan’s Chinatown, Chen’s religious asylum case file is one of many.

  • Stephanie: "How did she find the lawyers' office?"

  • Translator: "My sister told me that this law firm is very famous."

Her attorney says it will likely take years to move through the overburdened immigration court system.