Migrants find tips on Chinese version of TikTok for long trek to U.S.-Mexico border
Filed: April 28, 2023, 10 a.m. GMT
Lihua Wu's journey to the United States started when she scrolled past the words “The Route,” one of several common hashtags on Douyin, the Chinese counterpart of TikTok, advising migrants on the irregular overland trek across Latin America to the United States, also known online as “the Big Beautiful.”
By the time the single mother and her five-year-old daughter were apprehended by U.S. Border Patrol on a dirt road near the U.S.-Mexico border just before midnight on April 2, Wu said she had relied on social media for detailed instructions for her trip, including footwear (Crocs as well as hiking boots) and how to find and pay for a reliable local guide.
The difficulty of obtaining U.S. visas and the economic after-shocks of China’s COVID lockdowns have led to a sharp increase in Chinese nationals presenting at the U.S.-Mexico border – and some of those arrivals, like Wu, learned about how to come online, migrants, immigration experts, attorneys, and current and former U.S. officials, told Reuters.
Over the course of three weeks photographing and reporting from a remote border stretch in southeastern Texas, Reuters witnessed hundreds of Chinese migrants crossing into the United States and interviewed more than two dozen in Mandarin.
All of those interviewed said they got the idea to take the land route to the United States on social media and drew on influencers, private groups and comments to plan their trips.
About half said they had been small business owners in China: running online stores, a sheep farm, a movie production company.
Some wore crosses and carried Chinese-language bibles, saying they were Christians who felt they could not freely practice their religion at home. China's constitution guarantees religious freedom, but in recent years critics including the U.S. government say Beijing has tightened restrictions on religions seen as a challenge to the authority of the ruling Communist party.
Chinese migrants trek overland to the United States
An increasing number of Chinese nationals are making the 2,300 mile (3,700 km) irregular journey overland to the U.S.- Mexico border after flying to Ecuador, where they can enter without a visa.
The Chinese Embassy in Washington said in an email that the government opposes illegal migration, which “is an international issue that requires cooperation between countries.” It did not respond to a request for comment on the issue of religious freedom.
Short video app Douyin, owned by TikTok owner ByteDance, is one of the main sources of the Chinese tech giant's revenue overall, Reuters previously reported. ByteDance, which also owns Xigua Video, did not respond to requests for comments.
Apprehensions of Chinese nationals at the U.S.-Mexico border reached more than 6,500 in the six months since October 2022, the highest on record and a more than 15-fold increase over the same period a year ago, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) data.
While just a sliver of the hundreds of thousands of migrants arriving at the southwest border, Chinese people were the fastest growing demographic in those six months, CBP data show.
In a March 16 tweet, CBP Chief Border Patrol Agent Gloria Chavez in the Rio Grande Valley sector that includes Fronton said the increase was “creating a strain on our workforce due to the complexities of the language barrier & lengthens the processing.”
CBP said in a statement that it works with inter-agency task forces to track increasing migration and target “transnational criminal organizations who are smuggling Chinese migrants, specifically.” The Department of Homeland Security, which oversees CBP, has said that social media and other online platforms have increased smugglers’ access to potential migrants, creating an environment ripe for manipulation , which the agency has tried to combat with social media campaigns.
Even before her business collapsed, Wu said she had considered emigration as an escape from the discrimination she said she experienced as an unmarried single mother. Her decision to leave China solidified during a COVID-related lockdown in October, November and December, which devastated the online makeup wholesaler she ran from the eastern city of Yiwu.
When COVID controls curbed package deliveries in China, Wu said her sales slumped from around six million yuan ($871,000) to one million yuan ($145,000).
Wu initially thought about getting a U.S. tourist visa and overstaying, but a travel agent advised she was unlikely to get a visa as a single mother.
Refusal rates among Chinese nationals for the most common U.S. visitor visas reached 80% in fiscal year 2021 and more than 30% in 2022, the two highest years on record, according to State Department data. While U.S. visa issuance globally has mostly recovered to pre-pandemic levels, the number of U.S. visas issued from China last year remained 90% below 2019's pre-pandemic levels.
Visa holders and border crossers can request U.S. asylum on arrival if they fear persecution at home. Asylum seekers from China won in U.S. immigration court 58% of the time, according to U.S. Justice Department data.
The State Department in an emailed statement said 2021 and 2022 “were not standard years.” It said visa issuances were expected to increase as China “catches up on its passport backlog and air travel resumes after the end of the zero-COVID policy.”
Other Chinese nationals, like Wu, didn't wait.
Scrolling through her social media feeds, Wu came across “Baozai,” an internet personality who gained tens of thousands of followers on Douyin, Xigua Video, YouTube and Twitter by posting videos about his migration to the United States.
Reuters was not able to independently confirm Baozai's identity and in messages to Reuters, he denied being an influencer and said he was just a migrant.
Baozai's original account “Baozai adventure the world alone” is shown as “blocked” on Douyin for violating “community self-discipline regulations.”
He is now posting under a new account with the same name on Douyin, sticking to content about his life in the United States.
Douyin did not respond to a request for comment on Baozai.
Wu said she sold her secondhand BMW and borrowed about 10,000 yuan ($1,450) from family and friends. She and her daughter flew to Ecuador - where Chinese nationals can enter visa free - and, acting on advice she found on Douyin, sought out a vaccination for yellow fever.
It was a good idea before heading into the treacherous jungle region on the border of Colombia and Panama known as the Darien Gap, she had learned.
At the clinic in Quito Wu found a group of Chinese migrants who had contacted a local Colombian guide known only by his first name, “Carlos.”
“He is an internet celebrity in China,” Wu said.
Wu and several other migrants said Carlos and his associates charged around $1,230 per adult and $700 per child to arrange travel and hotels from Ecuador to Panama including a guided trek through the Darien.
Jungle tents and horses were also available for part of the trip for an extra fee, Wu and the other migrants said.
A Reuters reporter contacted a Colombian man through a number shared on Douyin who answered when addressed as Carlos. Carlos, who declined to give his full name and said he did not illegally smuggle anyone across borders or take money from migrants. But he said he did help some Chinese people looking for bus and ferry tickets.
“Last year I did a favor for a Chinese man who was lost. I helped him find a ride, and then through that, my number was shared.” He said he refers callers to a friend in Ecuador who is a bus driver, whom he did not identify. “I don't accompany anyone, I don't want any problems with my country or with the law,” he said. Reuters was unable to independently confirm his account.
Reuters found other social media accounts giving advice in Mandarin on crossing the U.S.-Mexico border.
An April 7 Twitter post from an account called Lee Gaga said smugglers mark the location of U.S. Border Patrol agents on maps and advise migrants on how to surrender to them. In posts and in messages exchanged with Reuters, the Twitter user identified as Lee Gaga said he was now in the New York City area after a 37-day journey.
“Of course you can try and run, but that's not recommended,” the post said. Twitter is blocked in China, but users may be able to access the platform through VPNs, or virtual private networks, that allow internet users to access overseas sites barred by authorities.
The Twitter poster went on: “I was released only after three days and three nights. I got lucky because the border policy has been good lately.”
A boat carrying migrants from China crosses the Rio Grande river into the U.S. from Mexico in Fronton, Texas, U.S., April 6, 2023.
Migrants from China ride in a motorized boat along the Rio Grande searching for a drop-off point on the U.S. side of the river as they navigate into the U.S. from Mexico in Fronton, Texas, U.S., April 10, 2023.
Migrants from China disembark from a motorized aluminum skiff after being transported across the Rio Grande river into the U.S. from Mexico in Fronton, Texas, on April 10, 2023.
Mexico is visible on the far side of the Rio Grande river as migrants from China walk along a dirt road on the U.S. side looking to surrender to Border Patrol agents in Fronton, Texas, U.S., April 4, 2023.
A member of the Texas Army National Guard asks a migrant from China to come out of his hiding place after the man and others were smuggled across the Rio Grande river into the United States from Mexico in Fronton, Texas, U.S., April 5, 2023.
A member of the Texas Army National Guard helps a migrant mother and daughter from China cross over a fence in Fronton, Texas, U.S., April 5, 2023.
Migrants from Central America and China are escorted by members of the Texas Army National Guard in Fronton, Texas, U.S., April 5, 2023.
Migrants from Central America and China are escorted by members of the Texas Army National Guard as they walk to a staging point past farmland in Fronton, Texas, U.S., April 10, 2023.
An empty pack of cigarettes lies along a dirt trail along the U.S. Mexico border which is used by migrants from China in Fronton, Texas, U.S., April 5, 2023.
A resident directs a Border Patrol agent towards the general direction where she saw a group of migrants from China in Fronton, Texas, U.S., April 2, 2023.
A group of migrants from China walks past residences while looking to surrender to Border Patrol agents in Fronton, Texas, U.S., April 4, 2023.
Migrants from China sit outside a residence after surrendering to a Starr County police officer and a Border Patrol agent in Fronton, Texas, U.S., April 4, 2023.
A Border Patrol agent holds a hand-made sign reading "Democracy, Freedom" in Chinese as migrants from China surrender to agents in Fronton, Texas, U.S., April 2, 2023. A migrant had held up the sign while he was surrendering.
Starr County Sheriff officers lead a group of Chinese migrants towards the town's cemetery for identification and processing in Fronton, Texas, April 4, 2023.
A migrant man from China holds his and his wife’s possessions in plastic bags following his surrender to Border Patrol agents in Fronton, Texas, U.S., April 10, 2023.
A migrant man from China wears a cross necklace while surrendering to Border Patrol agents in Fronton, Texas, U.S., April 10, 2023.
Migrants from China line up alongside a Border Patrol vehicle to receive further instructions about processing in Fronton, Texas, U.S., April 5, 2023.
Border Patrol vehicles crowd around a group of migrants from China at a gathering point near a local cemetery in Fronton, Texas, U.S., April 2, 2023.
A family of migrants from China, who wished to stay unidentified, sit in a transportation vehicle after surrendering to Border Patrol agents in Fronton, Texas, U.S., April 7, 2023.
Migrants from China gather after their surrender to Border Patrol agents after crossing the Rio Grande river into the United States from Mexico in Fronton, Texas, U.S., April 10, 2023.
A migrant grandmother from China assists in changing a three-month-old baby’s diaper at a Border Patrol staging area in Fronton, Texas, U.S., April 1, 2023.
A migrant woman from China attends to her daughter at a Border Patrol staging area in Fronton, Texas, U.S., April 1, 2023.
A migrant man from China waits to board a Customs and Border Protection transport vehicle in Fronton, Texas, U.S., April 1, 2023.
A migrant woman from China places her belongings in a plastic bag for Border Patrol agents in Fronton, Texas, U.S., April 3, 2023.
The Wider Image
Photography and photo editing: Reuters Staff
Reporting: Echo Wang and Mica Rosenberg
Additional reporting: Michael Martina and Ted Hesson in Washington, David Kirton in Shenzhen and Brenda Goh in Shanghai, China, Sheila Dang in Dallas, Alexandra Valencia in Quito and Elida Moreno in Panama City
Text editing: Suzanne Goldenberg
Design: Eve Watling