Asylum seems like a great idea for undocumented Chinese people, but the system still fails them

May 28, 2021
We know very little about undocumented Chinese people and their experiences. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)

We know very little about undocumented Chinese people and their experiences. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)

Chinese people make up a significant percentage of undocumented immigrants, but they're largely ignored and, because of U.S.-China relations, steered toward an expensive, arbitrary asylum process that hinders collective organizing and fuels debt.

Undocumented Chinese immigrants are a singular subset of immigrants, especially because they come from a place that's particularly far away, has an enormous population and is a communist country the U.S. has a stake in positioning as oppressive. A paper published April 30 in Social Forces lays out these migrants' unusual problems and the way their lives have been shaped by the jockeying of two global superpowers.

"Undocumented Chinese people, we know that they exist in the numbers, but we know very little about their experiences," said Amy Hsin, the lead author of the paper and an associate professor of sociology at Queens College, City University of New York. That prompted her and her co-author, City University of New York sociologist Sofya Aptekar, to investigate Chinese undocumented people in New York.  

The researchers learned, Hsin said, that because Chinese migrants "believe that [asylum] is the pathway to getting citizenship … that comes to shape what they think is possible."

Chinese asylum applications are approved at significantly higher rates than those filed by people from any other country. But even though they're more likely to be approved for asylum, they're not guaranteed, with only 35% of Chinese applications approved in 2016. The legal fees typically range from $8,000 to more than $15,000, Hsin and Aptekar wrote.

Despite the cost and the uncertainty — and the standard seven- to eight-year wait times — undocumented Chinese people typically don't apply for other immigrant programs, such as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, a policy whose beneficiaries are only 1% Chinese even though far more Chinese people are eligible. Furthermore, they aren't as involved in the broader struggle for the rights of undocumented people, the researchers wrote.

In the geopolitical struggle with China, the U.S. has used immigration policy to legitimize itself as a beacon of democracy and delegitimize its rival as an oppressive authoritarian, Hsin and Aptekar argue. The U.S. deferred deportations and gave temporary work permits to all Chinese nationals in the country after the Tiananmen Square Massacre on June 4 and 5, 1989, when the Chinese army attacked pro-democracy protesters, killing an undisclosed number of people that some estimate to be in the thousands. Later, the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996 expanded the definition of political persecution to include subjects of China's one-child policy, which was in place from 1980 to 2016. 

The study was based in part on 10 interviews with undocumented or formerly undocumented Chinese migrants and 13 interviews with advocates working with undocumented members of the Chinese community, as well as about 70 hours of field observations at community events. In one interview, a young woman pseudonymously called Xiaoling described how both of her undocumented parents — who fled China because they feared Xiaoling's mother would be forced to have an abortion — applied for asylum and, despite having the same reason for leaving China, the mother's application was approved while the father's application was denied.

Meanwhile, China's geography and sheer population size changes the way its migrants come to the U.S.: Because they're so far away, the journey is expensive — for the many working class people who do not qualify for a tourist visa, smuggling fees for an individual before 2016 were $80,000, compared to about $5,000 for people migrating from Central America. The cost means that many Chinese undocumented people stagger their family's arrival, potentially leaving their children behind until the parents can afford more fees or until the children are old enough to work. This dynamic of debt-fueled migration means Chinese people who migrated as youth also fall outside the scope of DACA — they may not be able to graduate from high school because they had to work, or they may have been left behind by their parents for too long to make the 16th birthday cutoff for DACA.

And the population size cuts off legal channels for immigration; even though the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965 repealed the Chinese Exclusion Act, all countries received the same caps on employer- and family-based visas, which disproportionately affected countries with larger populations. 

"The asylum regime is putatively humanitarian," the authors write, "but inflicts legal violence and diverts efforts away from collective organizing for rights-based remedies towards debt-fueled migration and asylum seeking." 

The paper, "The violence of asylum: The case of undocumented Chinese migration to the United States," published April 30 in Social Forces, was authored by Amy Hsin, Queens College, City University of New York; and Sofya Aptekar, City University of New York and University of Massachusetts Boston.

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