Regretting coming to US, some illegal Chinese immigrants return home

Austin, Texas — Chinese migrants coming across the southern U.S. border say they made the treacherous journey to flee China’s authoritarian rule, to seek the American dream or escape growing political and economic uncertainty at home.

But the challenges do not end after they arrive, and some are deciding to return to China, while others have no choice.

Last April, Xia Yu arrived in the United States after traveling through more than 10 countries over a period of two months. Xia, a Chinese man in his 40s, asked to use a pseudonym so he could speak more freely with VOA Mandarin about his journey.

On his way to the U.S. border, he says, all his property was stolen, and his American dream did not come true: In immigration custody, he failed to pass the “credible fear interview” for asylum-seekers.

2023 surge

According to U.S. Customs and Border Protection data, 52,700 Chinese immigrants arrived at U.S. borders without valid entry visas in fiscal 2023 — more than twice the number of just two years earlier. About half of them entered somewhere along the southern U.S. border where they were apprehended by Border Protection agents and sought asylum.

Individuals who pass the screening and establish that they have a credible reason to fear torture, persecution, or returning to their country, are allowed to stay in the U.S. to pursue their cases in immigration court.

Xia remained in the detention facility in the U.S. for months as he was processed for deportation, eventually landing at Shanghai Pudong Airport last August. Entering Chinese customs, he was fined $71 and had to sign a document admitting his crime of being deported after illegally entering another country. His passport was confiscated, and he was notified that he would be barred from leaving the country for three years.

The public security bureau in his hometown also questioned him about whom he encountered while on U.S. soil.

“They asked me to delete my foreign social media apps and foreign contacts,” he told VOA. “Then they told me not to contact these people because I would be deceived.” 

Xia said he thinks his WeChat account is being monitored to prevent him from inciting others to emigrate illegally. He said spending tens of thousands of dollars without even staying in the U.S. is nothing to brag about, and that he’d rather not mention his experience again.

‘A full life at home’

At 33, Wang Zhongwei from China’s Anhui Province now lives in Los Angeles, where has become a vocal advocate for immigrants since entering the United States in May.

Many Chinese who have crossed the border or are attempting to do so reach out to him for advice. Wang tells VOA Mandarin that while most who make the journey across the border stay, there are those who return because of loneliness, deceit, or family pressure.

Wang’s friend, Liu Ming, from Sichuan Province, came to the United States in the second half of 2023. Liu, 31, first stayed in Los Angeles for a month or two and then moved to New York to find work. After a long wait, he found a job working for a Chinese boss, but the pay wasn’t good.

In January, Liu’s boss refused to pay him, so he had no choice but to call the police. After receiving his salary the following day, Liu immediately went to the airport, messaging Wang: “I’m at the airport now and about to go back to China. I don’t like it here. See you again if destiny has it.”

In March, when Wang contacted him again, he found that Liu had used the self-service kiosk when entering China and wasn’t even interviewed by government staff.

Within months, Liu had returned to a life in China much as he knew it before.

“I am now working in a restaurant in my hometown. I work eight hours and the food is super good,” he told Wang via WhatsApp. “I used to work 12 hours non-stop in a restaurant in the U.S., [where] I was bored and lonely … but I live a full life at home.

At one point, when he got sick in the U.S., he worried about dying in a foreign land. He also complained about not being able to meet women there.

“I don’t regret the trip to the U.S.,” Liu continued, allowing, however, that on getting sick he’d worried about dying in a foreign land, and that he’d found it difficult to meet women.

“What I saw in real life was different from what I saw online,” he concluded. “There are both good and bad things in America.”

Room for regret

Zhang Lin, who is in his 30s and asked to use an alias to protect his privacy, describes himself as a person of double regrets. He first regretted coming to the United States, and now he regrets returning to China.

Crossing the U.S. border, Zhang found a job as a massage therapist in Los Angeles because he had the training. There, he made about $150 a day, a substantial wage for an undocumented immigrant.

But after only a month he returned to China, where he now runs a foot spa in his hometown.

“There were so many things I wasn’t used to in the U.S., and I was lonely,” he said. “I felt very homesick, so I came back impulsively.”

When he went to the U.S., Zhang said, he’d hoped to make a lot of money and make his family the envy of his hometown neighbors.

But now, after returning to China, where he faced a 12-hour interrogation at customs but faced no penalties, he says he regrets his impulsive decision to return.

“Life in my hometown is really hopeless,” Zhang said, adding that he hopes to go to the U.S. illegally again. “When you go out, you realize that the outside world is different. Your mind is opened up.”

Adrianna Zhang contributed to this report.

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