Ecuador ends visa-free entry for Chinese nationals

Austin, Texas — Ecuador says it will suspend visa-free entry into the country for Chinese citizens, starting July 1, citing a “worrying” increase in irregular migration. 

Over the past few years, Ecuador has been the starting point for many of the thousands of Chinese citizens who have decided to take the long and treacherous journey through South America, Central America and Mexico to reach the southern U.S. border.

Some who have already migrated to the United States say Ecuador’s decision and the growing resolve of both Washington and Beijing to stop the flow of illegal migration is a sign that the door may be closing for those seeking to “zouxian” or “walk the line” – as the journey is popularly described in Chinese.

Wang Zhongwei, a 33-year-old Chinese from Anhui, came to the U.S. by “walking the line” from Ecuador in May 2023. He said that after the Ecuadorian government’s announcement, “the discussion [among Chinese illegal immigrants] has been heated, and this has a great impact [because] more than 80% of the people came through Ecuador.”

According to U.S. Customs and Border Patrol statistics, the monthly number of encounters for Chinese nationals at the southwestern border hit a record high of nearly 6,000 in December of 2023. In recent months, those encounters have started to come down, slipping to just more than 3,600 in May.

In addition to a recent decision by U.S. President Joe Biden to temporarily restrict asylum eligibility at the U.S.-Mexico border, there are signs that Washington and Beijing are finding ways or at least trying to work together on the issue.  

In May, the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs told the Associated Press that Beijing is “willing to maintain dialogue and cooperation with the United States in the field of immigration enforcement” and accept the repatriation of people with verified Chinese nationality.

In April, U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas told a congressional hearing that he had “engaged” with his Chinese counterparts and that China had begun to accept the repatriation of Chinese immigrants who have no legal basis to stay in the United States.

VOA emailed the Department of Homeland Security to inquire about U.S.-Chinese cooperation on the deportation of Chinese nationals but did not receive a response by the time of publication.

Guo Bin, a Chinese citizen from Guangxi who arrived in the United States at the end of last year with his 12-year-old daughter, said he has heard of some Chinese who “walked the line” being deported in Los Angeles since May.

“There are indeed deportations, and they can be deported on the spot,” he said.

According to posts from social media influencer Teacher Li, Chinese authorities recently issued two documents to public prosecutors that highlight their determination to crack down on those who “walk the line” and to strengthen border control.

VOA could not independently verify the authenticity of the documents, but when it asked the Chinese Embassy about the documents the spokesman did not say they were fabricated.

In an emailed response to questions about the post, Liu Pengyu, spokesperson for the Chinese Embassy in the U.S. said: “China’s Supreme Court performs its duty in keeping with the law.”

“On illegal migration, China’s position is clear and consistent,” he said. “We oppose and firmly combat all forms of illegal migration and human smuggling.”

Li also said that “China’s law-enforcement agencies are working with the relevant countries to combat human smuggling and on extradition as well, in a joint effort to uphold the orderly flow of people across the countries.”

Earlier this year, Mexico strengthened its border control by setting up new checkpoints on major roads and increasing patrols at the more heavily used crossing points into the U.S. More illegal migrants have been intercepted as a result. 

According to the Washington Office on Latin America, Mexican immigration forces set a new record for the number of immigrant arrests in a single month in January and February of this year.

Guo said that he has heard about some Chinese who were intercepted while crossing Mexico. 

“U.S. immigration officers cooperate with the Mexican government and go deep into central Mexico to intercept immigrants,” he said. 

Once Chinese migrants are intercepted, they are sent to southern Mexico, he said.

If they want to continue “walking the line,” they must start again from a place farther away from the U.S., which will cost them more money and time.

Challenges aside, Wang and Guo say there are still ways to make it to the border. 

Wang says the desire of people to leave China is still strong and that some are exploring new routes. 

“You can fly to Cuba, and you can also fly to Bolivia,” Wang said.

In May, the Cuban government began allowing 90-day visa-free entry for Chinese citizens. Bolivia allows Chinese citizens holding ordinary passports to receive tourist visas upon arrival. Those with a transit visa can stay for 15 days or on a tourist visa for 30 days.

The straight-line distance from Cuba to the southernmost tip of Florida is about 150 km. The narrow waterway has been a smuggling route for decades. And some Chinese have already tried, despite the risks.

In October 2023, authorities in Florida say, 11 male and six female Chinese citizens were arrested after illegally entering Key Largo, Florida, from Cuba.

Li Xiaosan, a Chinese dissident, arrived in the U.S. in February 2023 by “walking the line.” He says he feels fortunate to be able to start a new life and sad for others who want to leave China now. Since arriving in the U.S., Li opened a translation company in New York and has passed his preliminary hearing for his political asylum application. He also obtained a work permit.

He says that once Ecuador’s new policy takes effect on July 1, even if Chinese people use other routes, the chances of successfully reaching the U.S. and staying will be significantly reduced.

“The door is closed,” Li said, adding that the question now is: “How many people can squeeze in through the cracks?” 

Adrianna Zhang contributed to this report.

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