Skip to main content

The ‘walking route': How an underground industry is helping migrants flee China for the US

·6 mins

They come with backpacks carrying a few spare changes of clothes and whatever money and phones they weren’t robbed of by criminals or cartels along the way, arriving at the United States-Mexico border exhausted from the stress of the journey north.

Like the hundreds of thousands of people around them who have also trekked weeks to reach the US, they’re driven by a desperation to escape and make a new life, despite the uncertainty of what’s on the other side.

But these migrants are fleeing an emerging superpower. On a recent winter day, dozens of Chinese nationals waited in different makeshift camps scattered outside San Diego, California, just north of the Mexican border.

Bundled in hoodies and jackets, they huddled around fires as they, and others there, counted the time before US border control agents would take them away for processing – and what they hoped would be the start to their lives in America.

These arrivals are part of a staggering new trend. In the first 11 months of 2023, more than 31,000 Chinese citizens were picked up by law enforcement crossing illegally into the US from Mexico, government data shows – compared with an average of roughly 1,500 per year over the preceding decade.

Their numbers are still dwarfed by those from regional neighbors, but the influx of people from China making that crossing spotlights the urgency many now feel to leave their native country, even in the midst of what leader Xi Jinping has claimed is a ’national rejuvenation.'

Many who left point to a struggle to survive. Three years of Covid-19 lockdowns and restrictions left people across China out of work – and disillusioned with the ruling Communist Party’s increasingly tight grip on all aspects of life under Xi. Now, hope that business would fully rebound once restrictions ended a year ago has vanished, with China’s once envious economic growth stuttering.

Others nod to restrictions on personal life in China, where Xi has overseen a sweeping crackdown on free speech, civil society, and religion in the country of 1.4 billion.

These Chinese nationals join migrants from around the world whose numbers have overwhelmed the southwestern US border with illegal crossings in recent months. Most are seeking asylum after they cross – a pathway that may narrow in the coming weeks as Congress is expected to move to stem that flow amid a fierce debate over immigration.

For now, people from China are on track to be the fastest growing group making those crossings, according to a CNN analysis of the latest law enforcement data on border encounters.

And as the numbers making their escape have grown, so too has a network of businesses and social media accounts catering to Chinese migrants, who must often take a circuitous route across continents before beginning the arduous, overland journey north.

For many, that overland route begins in Quito, Ecuador – a city that has become a gateway for those escaping China.

In 2022, Ecuador documented around 13,000 Chinese nationals entering. In the first 11 months of 2023, that number rose to more than 45,000. The country doesn’t require visas for Chinese passport holders.

A cottage industry of businesses caters to the border-bound, starting with airport pickups to arranging stays at Chinese-run hostels and organizing the journey north – often for a hefty fee.

Evidence of the growing trend appears across Quito, if one knows where to look.

At one bus station, a ticket agent has a sign for ’the Colombian border’ printed in Chinese, ready to flash to potential customers. At a local hospital offering vaccinations – recommended for a treacherous jungle crossing – the Spanish-speaking nurse keeps a Chinese translation of the intake form on her desk.

Along the fringes of the city’s central business district are a growing number of businesses linked to the trend. Travel agent Long Quanwei, who immigrated to Quito from China five years ago, told CNN last month that convenience and department stores sell gear and goods needed for the trek north, while Chinese-run establishments offer housing, food, and a place to link up with others headed north and decide about onward routes.

At one of these hostels, where a night’s stay with meals costs about $20, printed Chinese-language maps and instructions pasted to a wall detail each leg of the trip.

Among those passing through was Zheng Shiqing, who arrived in early December after first traveling by plane though Thailand, Morocco, and Spain.

A slim 28-year-old with a serious expression, he had already met with setbacks.

On his first attempt to pass through Colombia, Zheng and a travel partner were robbed at gunpoint. With his phone and money gone, he turned back to Quito to regroup. Still, he remained determined that the only way is forward to the US – to break a cycle he sees in China.

‘For ordinary people, survival is really difficult… I wish I was never born… living feels so exhausting.’

Earlier this year, like thousands of other Chinese, Zheng decided to try ‘zou xian’ or taking the ‘walking route’ to America.

The phrase has become a euphemism for the perilous journey, as has ‘global travels’ – one of the search terms people can key in to find online tutorials in Chinese for how to prepare, what to do at each leg, and even what to say to immigration officials.

China’s Covid-19 controls, relaxed only a year ago, hit blue-collar workers in cities and residents in rural areas hard.

And now the economy continues to struggle under a property market crisis, high local government debt, and the effects of a government crackdown on the once-booming private sector, all of which has cost jobs.

After urban youth unemployment hit record levels last year, the government stopped publishing data for the metric altogether.

‘It’s striking that so many are making this perilous journey to South America and up to the US when politically the country is very stable,’ said Victor Shih, director of the 21st Century China Center at the University of California San Diego.

‘It suggests that a significant segment of the population is in economic dire straits.’

Chinese emigration to the US took off after the opening of China’s economy in the early 1980s. As China’s economy boomed in the early 2000s, dynamics shifted.

But the country has also seen an intensified crackdown on civil society – and any form of dissent – during the past decade under Xi, a charge Beijing denies.

UN data shows the number of people from China seeking political asylum in the US and elsewhere around the world has sharply risen during Xi’s rule.

Those who cross at the southern US border, who include not just single adults but families, are also typically seeking asylum, an immigration category for people escaping persecution. Previously, asylum seekers from China might apply after entering the US on a tourist visa, or via a different route that may not involve being detained at a border, immigration experts say.

Now, the southern border has emerged as a better-known…