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Chinese migrants, some with the help of TikTok, have become fastest-growing group trying to cross U.S. southern border

Chinese migrants come to U.S. southern border
Growing number of Chinese migrants crossing into U.S. at southern border | 60 Minutes 13:15

After China's prolonged and strict COVID lockdown destroyed her business, a woman decided to leave her two young children with family to travel to Mexico and cross into the U.S. through a hole at the border. 

She's far from alone: Chinese migrants are the fastest growing group trying to cross into the U.S. from Mexico. Last year, U.S. Customs and Border Protection reported 37,000 Chinese citizens were apprehended as they illegally crossed the border; that's 50 times more than two years earlier. 

Many of the migrants say they made the journey to escape China's increasingly repressive political climate and sluggish economy. The mom, through a translator, told "60 Minutes" that what motivated her was more than economic reasons and could be summed up in one word. 

"Freedom," she said. 

How Chinese migrants are getting into the U.S. 

Migrants, undeterred by policies designed to reduce illegal entries, have been crossing the U.S.-Mexico border in unprecedented numbers. 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.

Migrants at U.S. southern border
60 Minutes

One point of entry is a 4-foot gap at the end of a border fence 60 miles east of San Diego. Smugglers in SUVs race along the border fence and drop migrants off near the gap. Over four days, "60 Minutes" witnessed nearly 600 migrants — adults and children — pass through the gap and onto U.S. soil, unchecked. 

One man, a college graduate, said his trip from China took 40 days. He said he had traveled through Thailand, Morocco, Ecuador, Colombia, Panama, Costa Rica and Nicaragua on his way to the U.S border.

The gap is a global destination, littered with travel documents from around the world. With the help of a translator, "60 Minutes" met some of the Chinese migrants coming through, including a teacher, a banker, some small business owners and a factory worker. 

Unlike the migrants who make the grueling journey through Central America, some middle class migrants from China arrive with rolling bags. Some said they took flights all the way to Mexico. 

Many flew from China to Ecuador because it doesn't require a visa for Chinese nationals. Then they flew to Tijuana. The migrants said they connected with smugglers and paid $400 for the hour-long drive to the gap at the border. 

The migrants knew about the hole because of TikTok. Posts on the app reviewed by "60 Minutes" featured step-by-step instructions for hiring smugglers and detailed directions to the border gap. 

Once through the hole, the migrants walk about half a mile down a dusty road and wait in line for U.S. Border Patrol to arrive so they can surrender. 

Why more Chinese migrants are turning to the U.S.-Mexico border

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. Just 160,000 were granted in 2022.

With visas more difficult to acquire, many are turning to the U.S. southern border, where they cross illegally, then wait to be picked up by Border Patrol agents. 

Jacqueline Arellano has used her Spanish skills in her eight years volunteering on the border, but lately, she's been relying on translation apps to communicate with Chinese migrants. Arellano believes it would be safer and more efficient for migrants to go to ports of entry. 

At the legal points of entry, asylum-seekers can request an appointment to enter the U.S. through CBP One mobile app. The CBP One system is glitchy. Volunteers who work with migrants told us the wait is 3-4 months to secure an appointment with the app.

About two hours after "60 Minutes" watched migrants arrive through the border fence hole, Border Patrol pulled up and shared recorded instructions in Mandarin. The migrants were driven to a detention facility near San Diego. Once there, migrants get background checks and some are interviewed. Usually, they're released within 72 hours and can then begin the process of filing asylum claims.

Migrants at U.S. southern border
60 Minutes

Based on a "60 Minutes" review of Immigration and Customs Enforcement data, there are at least 36,000 Chinese who have been ordered by U.S. immigration courts to leave the country, but China often refuses to take back citizens and the U.S. can't force China to accept them. 

Last year, 55% of Chinese migrants were granted asylum compared with 14% of migrants from other countries, according to the Department of Justice. 

With the odds in their favor –and instructions on TikTok to guide them– there's little to discourage more Chinese migrants from coming through the gap, something that's made California resident Jerry Shuster's life very difficult.

"Nobody do nothing about it."

Shuster, a 75-year-old retiree, owns the land near the border gap where the migrants wait to be picked up by Border Patrol. He owns 17 acres just north of the border fence and a quarter mile outside of Jacumba Hot Springs, California. Shuster came to the U.S. from Yugoslavia. He describes his immigration journey as coming "through the front door."

"And I knock on this door," Shuster said. "I didn't bust the door down to come over here."

The surge of migrants onto his property has been a frustrating experience for him. He said authorities haven't done anything to help. "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 said.

Jerry Shuster
Jerry Shuster 60 Minutes

Migrants began arriving on his property in May. He went to investigate some smoke coming from his property and found migrants burning trees to stay warm while they waited for Border Patrol to pick them up. Sometimes that can take a few hours. Other times, it takes days. 

One day several months ago, he implored the migrants to stop burning his trees. He said they surrounded him –so he went home and got his gun. Shuster said he was arrested after he fired his gun into the air. 

"I'm just protecting my own land," he said. 

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

Since, Shuster estimates 3,000 migrants a week have come through the hole. Shuster's property is littered with the trash and tents migrants have left behind. He said officials know about the hole and that he's asked for it to be fixed. 

"'You gotta call Washington D.C,' that's what they say," Shuster said. 

U.S. Customs and Border Protection said their agents do not have authority to stop people from coming through gaps like the one by Shuster's home. Agents can only arrest the migrants after they enter illegally. As for closing the gap, the agency said it is on their priority list but would require money from Congress. 

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