Chinese migrants are the fastest growing group crossing into U.S. from Mexico

The number of migrants arriving at the southern border is unprecedented. Last year, U.S. Customs and Border Protection recorded two-and-a-half million instances of detaining or turning away people attempting to cross into the United States from Mexico.

So what's the fastest growing group among them? Chinese migrants. Yes, you heard that right…Chinese. We saw large groups, including many from the middle class, come through a 4-foot gap at the end of a border fence 60 miles east of San Diego.

The illegal entryway is a new route for those hoping to live in America.

Just after sunrise, we saw the first group of migrants make their way from Mexico…through a gap between the 30 foot steel border fence and rocks.

Ducking under a bit of razor wire and into the United States.

We were surprised to see the number of people coming through from China...nearly 7,000 miles away.

Our cameras, and at one point this armed Border Patrol agent standing 25 feet away…. did not deter them.

 / Credit: 60 Minutes
/ Credit: 60 Minutes

This man, a college graduate, told us he hoped to find work in Los angeles. He said his trip from China took 40 days.

Sharyn Alfonsi: What countries did you go through?

College grad: Thailand, Morocco, Ecuador … Ecuador, Colombia, Panama, Costa Rica …Nicaragua.

Sharyn Alfonsi: Jeez.

Thirty minutes later, a smuggler's SUV raced along the border fence and dropped another group at the same spot. And 30 minutes after that…. another group.

Over four days, we witnessed nearly 600 migrants – adults and children- pass through this hole and onto U.S. soil…unchecked. We saw people from India, Vietnam and Afghanistan. Many of the Chinese migrants who came through will end up asking for political asylum.

Sharyn Alfonsi: Did you travel by yourself or with family or friends?

Migrant no. 2: Eh No. Just me.

Sharyn Alfonsi: Just you.

Migrant no. 2: Yeah.

The gap is a global destination…littered with travel documents from around the world.

Travel documents from around the world have been left on the ground at the border gap. / Credit: 60 Minutes
Travel documents from around the world have been left on the ground at the border gap. / Credit: 60 Minutes

With the help of a translator, we learned a little about the Chinese migrants coming through.

We also met a banker and small business owners.

Some of the migrants made a grueling journey through Central America with dusty backpacks…but we noticed middle class migrants from China arriving with rolling bags. They told us they took flights all the way to Mexico.

Some flew from China to Ecuador, because it doesn't require a visa for Chinese nationals. Then, took flights to Tijuana, Mexico.

The migrants told us they connected with smugglers, or what they call snake heads, in Tijuana.

And they each paid them about $400 for the hour-long drive that ended here…at the gap…

Sharyn Alfonsi: Why did you decide to come to the United States?

Female migrant/Translator speaking English: Oh, it's hard to live there … hard to find jobs.

Sharyn Alfonsi: What did you do? Did you work in China?

Female migrant/Translator speaking English: She worked in the factory but now it's hard to work in the factory.

Sharyn Alfonsi: Was this-- trip expensive?

Female migrant /Translator speaking English: Yeah.

She said it was…and that she sold her house to cover the $14,000 cost of her trip to the U.S.

 / Credit: 60 Minutes
/ Credit: 60 Minutes

Last year, U.S. Customs and Border Protection reported 37,000 Chinese citizens were apprehended crossing illegally from Mexico into the U.S.…that's 50 times more than two years earlier.

Many of the migrants told us they made the journey to escape China's increasingly repressive political climate and sluggish economy.

This 37-year-old woman said China's COVID lockdown destroyed her child care business. She left her two young children with family at home.

Sharyn Alfonsi: And why did you decide to come to the United States?

37-year-old female migrant/translator speaking English: Many reasons.

Sharyn Alfonsi: For work or?

37-year-old female migrant/translator speaking English: Not … not entirely.

Sharyn Alfonsi: OK. What-- what reasons?

37-year-old female migrant/translator speaking English: Freedom.

Sharyn Alfonsi: Freedom.

We wondered how all of these migrants…knew about this particular entryway into California.

The answer was in their hands.

Translator: TikTok, TikTok.

Sharyn Alfonsi: Oh you learned on TikTok.

TikTok is a social media platform created in China. The posts we found had step-by-step instructions for hiring smugglers and detailed directions to that hole we visited.

We were struck by just how orderly and routine it all seemed. The migrants walked about a half mile down a dirt road and waited in line for U.S. Border Patrol to arrive so they could surrender.

The land they are waiting on is owned by 75-year-old Jerry Shuster, a retiree.

Sharyn Alfonsi: The whole world seems to know there's a way in. And it's on your property.

Jerry Shuster and Sharyn Alfonsi / Credit: 60 Minutes
Jerry Shuster and Sharyn Alfonsi / Credit: 60 Minutes

Jerry Shuster: They're all doing this. They're all doing this. when they come over here, they come with the suitcases. They come prepared with the computers just like they got off on a Norwegian cruise ship yesterday.

Shuster owns 17 acres…just north of the border fence and a quarter mile outside of Jacumba Hot Springs, California. Population 540.

Sharyn Alfonsi: You're an immigrant yourself.

Jerry Shuster: Yes.

Sharyn Alfonsi: Where did you come from?

Jerry Shuster: I come from Yugoslavia. And I left Yugoslavia, I went to Austria. I stayed there eight month. And I knock on this door. I didn't bust the door down to come over here.

Sharyn Alfonsi: You came through the front door.

Jerry Shuster: I came through the front door.

Sharyn Alfonsi: And what do you think about this?

Jerry Shuster: They-- they don't care. They-- they-- they-- they come through the hole like they're comin' to their own country over here. And nobody do nothin' about it.

Shuster says it all started in May. He went to investigate some smoke coming from his property and found migrants burning trees to stay warm.

Today, his property looks like a messy moonscape…littered with the trash and tents migrants have left behind.

Tents have been left behind on Jerry Shuster's property / Credit: 60 Minutes
Tents have been left behind on Jerry Shuster's property / Credit: 60 Minutes

Sharyn Alfonsi: Have you ever just yelled, "Get outta here?"

Jerry Shuster: Well, they say—I uh - it was, like, four month ago, there was eight guys start-- knocking my trees and start burning my-- my-- my trees on the other side. So I told 'em, "Please, don't do that. Please don't do--" and they start surrounding me. I went home, and I got my gun, and I shoot in the air. They arrest me.

Sharyn Alfonsi: They arrested you?

Jerry Shuster: Yeah, they arrest me.

Sharyn Alfonsi: On your property?

Jerry Shuster: Yeah, on my property. Yeah, just because. I ask 'em not to burn the trees, not to knock the fences. And they-- they arrested me. They put me in a police car. I'm just protecting my own land.

Shuster wasn't charged – but his gun was confiscated.

Sharyn Alfonsi: If you had to guess, how many migrants do you think you've seen come through here?

Jerry Shuster: Maybe 3,000—a week.

Sharyn Alfonsi: 3,000 a week?

Jerry Shuster: I would say that, yes. Because this is ongoing deal.

About two hours after these migrants arrived, we saw the Border Patrol pull up, broadcasting recorded instructions in Mandarin.

The migrants were driven to a detention facility near San Diego…where they are given background checks. Some are interviewed. Typically - within 72 hours – they are released into the United States and can begin the process of filing an asylum claim.

Jacqueline Arellano has volunteered on the border for eight years offering humanitarian aid to migrants.

Jacqueline Arellano: So I'm a-- native Spanish speaker. I have been able to rely on being bilingual in doing this work for the duration that I have been doing it. And in this past year, I mean, there's been times that I've come to the sites and not spoken to a single Spanish speaker.

She relies on translation apps to communicate with Chinese migrants.

Sharyn Alfonsi: These people want to be picked up by border patrol. Why isn't this happening at a port of entry?

Jacqueline Arellano: That would definitely be the ideal situation. And people would much prefer to do so. It would definitely be much safer and more efficient. Unfortunately, there are barriers to people being able to seek asylum at a port of entry.

One barrier is the phone app called "CBP One".

Asylum seekers are supposed to use the app to make an appointment to enter the U.S. through a legal border crossing...

As we saw last spring in Juarez, Mexico...the system is glitchy...

Volunteers who work with migrants told us there is still a three to four month wait to secure an appointment at a border crossing.

Sharyn Alfonsi: So is this a shortcut?

Jacqueline Arellano: It's really, like, the only one that they have. I don't even know that they would consider it a shortcut.

For years, millions of Chinese entered the U.S. with a visa that allowed them to visit, work or study. But in the last few years, those visas have been increasingly difficult to secure as tensions between the two countries have grown.

In 2016, the U.S. granted 2.2 million temporary visas to Chinese nationals. In 2022, it was just 160,000.

Tammy Lin is an immigration attorney and has worked with clients from China for nearly two decades.

Sharyn Alfonsi: if someone's not granted asylum here, will China then say, "Okay, yes, we'll take them back"?

Tammy Lin: I haven't seen that happen, really. I-- I think-- even back to 2008-- a lot of the Chinese nationals that had failed asylum cases weren't able to get passports-- to be put on the plane to be sent back. So we can't send you back.

Based on our review of data from Immigration and Customs Enforcement – there are at least 36,000 Chinese who have been ordered by U.S. courts to leave the country. But China is notorious for not taking back its citizens and the U.S. can't force China to accept them.

Sharyn Alfonsi: So, then, what happens if they have a failed claim but they can't go back to China?

Tammy Lin: That's a very good question. They're stuck in this limbo.

According to the Department of Justice, last year 55% of Chinese migrants were granted asylum. compared to 14% for every other nationality.

With the odds in their favor, and a phone to guide them, there's little to discourage more Chinese migrants from coming through the gap near Jerry Shuster's place.

Sharyn Alfonsi: Have you said to anybody, "Hey, there's this giant hole. They're comin' through. How 'bout patching that up?"

Jerry Shuster: They know that thing is there. And-- we-- we all been tellin' 'em, "Hey, when this thing gonna quit over here? you gotta call Washington D.C." That's what they say.

So, we did. U.S. Customs and Border Protection told us their agents don't have authority to stop people from coming through gaps like this one and can only arrest them after they've entered illegally.

As for closing that gap, they said it is on their priority list. But would require money from Congress.

Produced by Guy Campanile. Associate Producer, Lucy Hatcher. Broadcast associate, Erin DuCharme. Edited by Craig Crawford.

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