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The Chinese Immigrants Making Their Way to New York City

by Marko Florentino
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When busloads of migrants from Venezuela and Latin America started turning up on New York City streets in 2022, it spurred a crisis that has overwhelmed city shelters and incited protests over immigration policies.

And while Mayor Eric Adams and city leaders have sought to slow the pace of new arrivals, there has been another, smaller but also growing group of migrants coming into the city — largely unnoticed.

Thousands of Chinese migrants have also made their way to New York, with many following on the heels of migrants from Central and South America and crossing at the United States-Mexico border. Once they reach the city, however, many are tapping into long-established family and social networks in Chinese enclaves to get on their feet quickly and, for the most part, on their own.

It is not known exactly how many Chinese migrants have landed in New York. But immigration court filings since October 2022 show that New York State was their top destination — with more than 21,000 filings for Chinese migrants — followed by California, according to an analysis by Julia Gelatt, an associate director at the Migration Policy Institute.

The influx of Chinese migrants into the city has been the largest in more than a decade, and marks a return to the sizable immigration of Chinese people beginning in the 1980s that revived struggling neighborhoods like Chinatown, and cemented newer ethnic strongholds in Flushing, Queens, and Sunset Park, Brooklyn.

Yet, this revival of Chinese migration has attracted relatively little attention, in part because it has been dwarfed by the sheer numbers of people arriving from Latin America. The rapid increase in Chinese newcomers, nonetheless, promises to have a significant effect on New York City and its sprawling Chinese American community of 590,000, which is the largest in the nation.

“There’s a large-scale migration going on in the Chinese community that’s completely off the radar screen,” said Kenneth J. Guest, an anthropology professor at Baruch College who studies Chinese immigration.

The latest increase in Chinese migrants has been driven in part by frustration over China’s harsh pandemic-era lockdowns, authoritarian government and a worsening economy. A flurry of online and social media posts have provided detailed instructions and tips on how to cross the southern border.

Across the United States, the number of Chinese migrants has soared. There were 52,700 Chinese migrants arriving without a valid entry visa at land borders, and on boats and planes, during the federal government’s fiscal year 2023, or more than double the number just two years earlier, according to the analysis by Ms. Gelatt, of the Migration Policy Institute. Those numbers did not include people who came in without encountering border officials or later overstayed their visas.

These Chinese migrants have increasingly crossed at the southern border, with the number encountered by border officials there jumping more than sixfold to 5,980 in December 2023 from 950 a year earlier.

Still, they were just a small subset of the 3.4 million migrants who have crossed the southern border since October 2022, which included more than 974,000 Mexicans and over 410,000 Venezuelans.

Wang Chao, 39, had worked as a hotel security guard in Hainan Province, an island in the South China Sea, before leaving China last October. He flew to Thailand, and then Turkey, before landing in Ecuador and embarking on the long trek north. He contracted dengue fever and malaria in rainforests in Panama and was later kicked off a truck carrying migrants in Guatemala because the driver thought someone cursed at him in Chinese.

Mr. Wang eventually crossed into California, where he said he was briefly detained by border authorities. When he was released, he continued on to Flushing, arriving in December. He paid $12 a night for a bunk in an apartment shared with other Chinese immigrants before recently moving out of state for work.

The Chinese migrants have largely stayed out of New York City’s shelters. Fewer than 400 of the more than 173,000 migrants passing through the city shelter system since spring 2022 have reported coming from China, according to city officials.

The Chinese newcomers did not need to rely on the shelters because they could turn to ethnic enclaves, which are home to many of the city’s 411,000 Chinese immigrants. Such enclaves have long played a key part in helping Chinese immigrants integrate into New York and other cities, according to Professor Guest of Baruch College.

These so-called Chinatowns began forming as early as the 1850s on the West Coast, Professor Guest said, and provided protection against anti-immigrant violence and discrimination, including the Chinese Exclusion Acts, which were restrictive immigration policies from 1882 to the 1940s. “The Chinese built ethnic support systems where they could pool financial and social capital,” he said.

Today, that informal but well-developed Chinese support system in New York has become a “first resort” for recent migrants, said State Senator John C. Liu, whose district includes Flushing.

Already, the Chinese migrants have helped replenish the city’s population following losses during the coronavirus pandemic, and have filled construction, restaurant and other service jobs that keep the local economy running.

Chinese listings posted in Flushing storefronts and online advertise “family hotels” in apartment buildings that are like unofficial Airbnb rentals. In Sunset Park, where there is a large community of immigrants from Fujian Province, they have packed into churches for Sunday services and Bible study classes.

At East Broadway Mall in Chinatown, hundreds of newcomers have gathered through word of mouth for help applying for city IDs and finding health care resources from community leaders.

Brad Song, 30, a migrant from Hunan who arrived last summer, found temporary refuge at a Chinese massage parlor in Flushing that let migrants sleep in the beds for $10 a night. At the supermarket where he went to buy noodles, a store worker helped him land a job at a Chinese banquet hall. He has also worked for the food delivery app Fantuan, and installed solar panels for a Chinese-owned company in New Jersey.

But even as the migrants have settled in, their growing numbers have also created challenges in immigrant communities where many people were already struggling with financial insecurity and social isolation because of language and cultural barriers, as well as fears about their safety following a spate of anti-Asian hate crimes.

There are 1.2 million New Yorkers of Asian heritage who make up about 15 percent of the city’s overall population, according to a census analysis by Social Explorer, a data research company. Within this diverse group — representing dozens of ethnicities, including Korean, Japanese, Filipino, Indian and Bangladeshi — there are significant socioeconomic disparities.

In 2022, Chinese immigrants had a median household income of $60,454, about half that of U.S.-born Chinese people, who tend to have more education and higher earnings. Citywide, the median household income was $75,046.

The Chinese-American Planning Council, a social service agency, has expanded its programs to an additional 20,000 people over the past four years, but “the need is still out there,” said Wayne Ho, the president and chief executive officer. Hundreds remain on waiting lists for its adult literacy classes, mental health counseling, and four older adult centers in Flushing, Chinatown and Sunset Park.

Asian American leaders said their communities have long been underfunded by government programs, in part because of enduring model-minority stereotypes of Asians as self-sufficient and upwardly mobile. A 2015 report found that organizations serving the city’s Asian American communities had received a tiny part of the city’s social service contracts.

State Assemblywoman Grace Lee, whose district includes Chinatown, said there has been a “false narrative” around the needs of Asian communities that “we as legislators are trying to break.” Ms. Lee, who is Korean American, led a coalition of state legislators who helped secure $30 million in state funding last year specifically for Asian American organizations statewide.

While some of the newcomers have fled political and religious persecution in China, a growing number — including families, middle-class professionals and small business owners — are looking for more economic opportunity, said Edward Cuccia, an immigration lawyer in Chinatown, who has taken on more than 70 new Chinese asylum cases in the past two years. “America’s still the golden country in their eyes,” he said.

However, some migrants have found that they are not necessarily better off. At employment agencies in Flushing, dozens of recent migrants have returned day after day to sit on folding chairs waiting for jobs.

Doris He, 31, has been one of the luckier ones. Ms. He went to work at a small Chinese bakery after arriving in Flushing last year with her husband, Li Jianfeng, 35, and their 9-year-old son. Back in Xi’an, China, she had been a barista in a coffee shop.

“It’s a good start here, but we don’t earn enough money yet,” Ms. He said. “Compared to China, we’re doing OK.”

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