Chinese migration to the US is soaring. Here’s what happens next.

On any given morning, small groups of men dressed in jeans and hoodies hang around the Fatty Ding’s shopping plaza in Monterey Park, California, waiting for day-labor jobs or just passing time. This modest square has ricocheted around social media as a recommended destination for Chinese migrants, who are crossing illegally over the southern border into the United States in record numbers.

Monterey Park, just east of Los Angeles on Interstate 10, has been a migrant magnet for decades and is known as America’s first suburban Chinatown. It sits in the sunbaked San Gabriel Valley, where the network of Chinese churches and temples, businesses, service agencies, and cheap rooms for rent makes this – and surrounding cities – an immigrant gateway.

“The San Gabriel Valley is really ground zero for Chinese migrants and asylum-seekers overall,” says Kim Luu-Ng, an immigrant attorney in the Los Angeles area.

Why We Wrote This

A story focused on

Our initial story on Chinese migrants explored why they are coming to the United States. Here we look at one community’s unofficial support structure for them – on everything from jobs to housing.

The local influx is part of record unauthorized immigration at the U.S.-Mexico border. Border Patrol encountered more than 24,000 Chinese between ports of entry in fiscal year 2023, compared with just 330 in 2020. This spike is a tiny amount as a share of last year’s 2.5 million encounters at the border, but it reflects a growing trend in the diversification of nationalities entering illegally from the south. Experts say the increase among Chinese was triggered when China ended three years of strict pandemic lockdowns at the end of 2022.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff

Photos of the city of Tianjin, China, where the restaurant owners hail from, hang on the wall of the Garage Kitchen restaurant that serves Chinese food at Fatty Ding’s plaza in Monterey Park, California, April 4, 2024.

Coast-to-coast networks

In interviews at the border last month, Chinese migrants told the Monitor that they were heading to American cities where they have relatives or contacts. They named New York, which has the nation’s largest Chinese immigrant population, legal and unauthorized; San Francisco, which has the second-largest; and Los Angeles, which is right behind. 

In these urban areas, migrants can tap into long-established, effective ethnic networks, unnoticed by outsiders and largely independent of public services like shelters, says Ken Guest, an anthropology professor at Baruch College and a Chinese migration expert.

While Latinos and other communities have organizations and families to help newcomers, Chinese have a “particularly elaborate internal social structure,” he says. It dates back to the first Chinatowns of the 1850s, formed to protect residents from anti-Chinese violence and discrimination, he explains. America’s first major law restricting immigration was aimed directly at the Chinese: the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which banned Chinese laborers from coming to the United States.

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