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The number of Chinese immigrants encountered by U.S. Customs and Border Protection at the southern border with Mexico has risen sharply in recent months, in part because China recently reopened after strict border closures during the COVID-19 pandemic, experts said.
The vast majority of the Chinese migrants are single adults, and likely young men, but that is not proof that China is sending troops disguised as migrants.
Experts said it’s common for migrants from any country to be what the video calls "military age."
A sharp increase in the number of Chinese immigrants on their way to the U.S. southern border with Mexico has led to baseless social media claims about a stealth invasion by the Chinese Communist Party.
"Troops on the ground. Chinese communist," read sticker text on a May 15 TikTok video. The video includes a clip from a Fox News broadcast about Chinese migrants and then cuts to a woman who said, "There’s troops on the ground, if you guys didn’t know. Thousands of Chinese men entering the country illegally."
TikTok identified the video as part of its efforts to counter inauthentic, misleading or false content. (Read more about PolitiFact’s partnership with TikTok.)
The "Fox & Friends First" clip shown in the TikTok video comes from an April 19 report. In it, Anthony Rubin, a reporter for Muckraker.com, discussed a video he recorded that he said showed hundreds of Chinese migrants at a camp near the Panama-Colombia border.
The TikTok video showed only seconds of the Fox report. In the full report, Rubin didn’t describe the men as "troops," but spoke of a line of "military-age males" who were lining up to board buses to continue their journey to the U.S.-Mexico border. He speculated, without offering proof, that while some of the men may be coming to the U.S. to seek asylum, others may be coming for nefarious reasons. The line of migrants in the video, a longer version of which Muckraker shared April 14 on Twitter, shows young men, but also some women and children.
The number of Chinese migrants arriving at the U.S. southern border has increased dramatically in recent months. But there’s no evidence the increase has any connection to China’s military.
How many migrants from China are arriving at the U.S. southern border?
U.S. Customs and Border Protection data through April shows 9,854 encounters with Chinese migrants at the southwest border, mostly between points of entry. The data is from fiscal year 2023, which began in October. That’s more than twice the total number encountered in a three-year span from 2020 through 2022, the data shows.
Clayton Dube, director of the USC U.S.-China Institute, said the notion of a stealth invasion by China using immigrants is nonsense.
"The obvious reason why more Chinese may be coming across the border now is that COVID-19 restrictions kept Chinese within the country from 2020 until late 2022," Dube said. "The main exceptions were students going abroad to study. China's economic slowdown, including high unemployment among young people, is a push factor."
Although the data isn’t broken down by age, the vast majority of the Chinese migrants encountered at the southern border are classified as single adults. Adam Isacson, the director for defense oversight at the Washington Office on Latin America, a group that advocates for human rights in the Americas, said most of those would almost certainly be young men.
He noted a 204% increase in single adults from China entering through the southern border from December to April, but said there were also significant increases of entry by single adults from other countries, including Venezuela and Brazil.
"There is nothing unusual about migrants from any country being ‘military age,’" said Isacson, who said there’s also nothing unusual about people fleeing persecution from countries that have poor relationships with the U.S.
The journey to the U.S. through Mexico can be a dangerous one, as recent news reports about the increased Chinese migration show. Many Chinese migrants, like those from other countries, cross from South to Central America through the treacherous Darién Gap, which the Guardian describes as a "roadless, lawless and extremely dangerous stretch of rainforest."
Most Chinese migrants enter the U.S. at airports with visas, but it’s always been the case that some have arrived through other means, said Dube, who cited as an example the Golden Venture, a freighter used to smuggle nearly 300 immigrants from China in 1993 that ran aground off Queens, New York.
Many Chinese migrants seek asylum for a variety of reasons, such as political or religious repression, but relatively few choose to take the financial and safety risks associated with arriving at the U.S. border without authorization, said Dube.
Steven Camarota, director of research at the Center for Immigration Studies, a group that advocates for reduced immigration, said that in the past, Chinese migrants who were in the U.S. illegally had mostly overstayed a temporary visa.
Camarota said national security concerns arise when immigrants from a "hostile power" enter the U.S. undetected. But Isacson said such a risk is more likely if a country tried to mix in spies, not soldiers, with migrants, which Cuba was thought to have done in 2010.
Isacson said his group talked with several migrants from China during an April visit to the Honduras-Nicaragua border, "and they spoke in general terms about fleeing repression." Isacson said U.S. Department of Justice data for fiscal year 2023, generated in January, shows only about 12% of Chinese migrants filing for asylum were denied.
A CBP spokesperson said in a statement to PolitiFact that increased migration is a global phenomenon. CBP Acting Commissioner Troy Miller recently told Congress that the agency works with multiple partners to disrupt the transnational criminal organizations who are smuggling Chinese migrants, specifically.
The statement said there are multiple levels of screening to detect and prevent people who pose national security or public safety risks from entering the U.S.
A TikTok video claimed that "Chinese communist" troops are on the ground at the U.S. southern border.
The number of Chinese migrants at the southern border has increased in recent months. But there is nothing unusual about "military age men" coming from any country, even those with strained relations with the U.S. We found no evidence the recent increase has any connection to China’s military.
Many of the migrants are fleeing political or religious repression, or migrating for financial reasons.
We rate the claim False.
Staff Writer Maria Ramirez Uribe contributed to this report.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection, "Nationwide encounters," search on May 17, 2023
U.S. Customs and Border Protection, statement, May 18, 2023
U.S. Department of Justice, "Asylum Decision Rates by Nationality," accessed May 17, 2023
Fox News, "Reporter says he filmed hundreds of military-age Chinese men heading toward US in migrant groups," April 19, 2023
Muckraker tweet, April 14, 2023
Adam Isacson, director for defense oversight at the Washington Office on Latin America, email interview, May 18, 2023
Clayton Dube, director of the USC U.S.-China Institute, email interview, May 17, 2023
Steven Camarota, director of research at the Center for Immigration Studies, email interview, May 17, 2023
Migration Policy Institute, "Chinese Immigrants in the United States," Jan. 12, 2023
NBC News, "More Chinese migrants are coming to the U.S. on foot, officials say," March 29, 2023
VOA, "Growing Number of Migrants From China Arriving at US-Mexico Border," April 19, 2023
Reuters, "Migrants find tips on Chinese version of TikTok for long trek to U.S.-Mexico border," April 28, 2023
The Wall Street Journal, "Determined to Flee China, Thousands Take a Long, Dangerous Route to the Southern U.S. Border," April 16, 2023
The Guardian, "Growing numbers of Chinese citizens set their sights on the US – via the deadly Darién Gap," March 8, 2023
The Council on Foreign Relations, "Crossing the Darién Gap: Migrants Risk Death on the Journey to the U.S.," June 22, 2022
The New York Times, "Mastermind of Golden Venture Smuggling Ship Gets 20 Years," Dec. 2, 1998
The Palm Beach Post, "As many as 30 Mariel migrants ID'd as spies in agents' Burger King-like screening process," June 14, 2010
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