Chinese walk from Ecuador to the United States

April 30, 2024 18:04

Chinese have discovered a new way to reach the United States – travelling from Ecuador, a distance of 4,000 kilometres, much of it on foot. The route is called zouxian (走線), the “walking line.”

In the first 11 months of last year, 31,000 Chinese were detained by law enforcement officers in Texas after crossing illegally from Mexico, compared with an average of 1,500 a year over the previous decade.

Ecuador is the only country in Latin America that does not require Chinese to have a visa for entry. Chinese arrive in the capital Quito via Istanbul, Cairo and other cities in Africa.

The journey involves crossing seven countries, with the most perilous section the dense jungle of the Darien Gap that connects Colombia with Panama. It has no roads, only tropical jungle, rivers and mountainous terrain. It is the only land bridge between North and South America. The migrants have no entry visa for any of the seven countries.

Bandits attack migrants who cross the jungle. Since most are poor citizens of South American countries with no money, the bandits target Chinese as better off – but usually demand only US$200-300 per family, because they do not want to deter other Chinese from coming.

After crossing the jungle, the migrants reach refugee camps established by the Panamanian government, where they can have a free meal and rest. They find there Chinese-owned restaurants, which provide a wide variety of service in addition to Chinese food – bus tickets of US$150 for their onward journey or, for the rich, a fee of several thousand US dollars to pay Mexican officials for smooth passage to the Texas border. Those without money have to walk.

Those who take the bus face the risk of checks by police – or criminals dressed as police – who demand US$200 or more or arrest and imprisonment in a detention centre for illegal entry into Mexico.

A group of nine Chinese hired a boat to avoid these checks. But stormy seas overturned their boat. Eight naked women, their clothes removed by the waves, were found on a beach; the other, a man, survived by floating on his suitcase. The local newspapers did not report the deaths.

The survivor told a Mexican television station: “if eight whites had been found dead or even eight Mexicans, it would have been big news. Why are our lives of no importance?”

If the migrants are successful and cross into Texas, they wait for agents of the U.S. Border Patrol to pick them up. They are assigned dates for court hearings to decide if they will be granted asylum; the number of illegal migrants is so large that they can wait up to five years for a hearing.

In the meantime, they can work. A trained Chinese chef can earn US$10,000-US$12,000 a month, a washer of dishes US$3,000.

They are likely to win asylum. According to the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse of Syracuse University, over the past two decades, nearly 67 per cent of Chinese received asylum. They cited persecution of religion and Fa Lun Gong, a decline in human rights and, in earlier years, the one-child policy that banned more than one birth. To apply for asylum, a person must be present in the U.S.

The route has become popular because of a lack of other routes and through social media. Some making the trip make videos of their journey, even one every day. The waiting time for a tourist visa to the U.S. in China can be more than six months.

Wang Zhongwei arrived in Texas in May 2025 with his parents, his wife and two children, one only 14 months old. The most dangerous section was the Darien Gap. “My mother, in poor health, could not walk after climbing the first hill,” he said. “A fellow migrant helped her.”

“I came because of the severe lockdowns during Covid and human rights abuses by the government,” he said.

Another man said that he worked in construction. “I worked on a project for two years and was not paid,” he said. “Our boss beat us if we complained. I saw no economic future there. All I want is a reasonable job.”

Renata Castro, a Florida immigration lawyer, said that the main driver was lack of economic expectations in China. “Then there are those who are escaping the oppression of their government.”

Chinese are a fraction of the record numbers of illegal migrants at the southern border. U.S. officials estimate the number of arrivals in December alone at 300,000 and expect a new record in 2024. It has become one of the main issues in the Presidential election this year.

A Hong Kong-based writer, teacher and speaker.