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Jun 17, 2024

Waiting Decades for Asylum, Chinese Undocumented Immigrants Face a “Stateless” Reality

Between 1990 and 2000, only 12,834 asylum applications for Chinese asylum seekers were granted out of 56,060, or only 23%, according to the nonprofit Mobile Pathways.

By April Xu

It was July 4, 2023, and the sky was still bright at 7 p.m. Excited crowds flocked to viewpoints along the East River, eager to watch the fireworks. For Lin, a cook at a restaurant, it was just another ordinary night. He walked against the flow of people toward Chinatown, but as he approached Madison Street near the Manhattan Bridge, Lin says three young men were staring at him. He quickened his pace to pass them. 

Then, Lin felt a heavy blow. His head throbbed with pain. One of the men had struck him, unprovoked. Lin started running and they chased him into a park where the three men beat him, he said, before quickly fleeing the scene. 

Over the ensuing three months, Lin was unable to work. He took medicine, but after about half a year with no improvement, including insomnia and persistent ear pain, he found himself visiting a place he hadn’t been to for 33 years: the doctor’s office. 

As an undocumented immigrant without health insurance, Lin was accustomed to self-care and over-the-counter remedies because he feared the high cost of doctors. He was told by the doctor that the injury had developed into chronic inflammation. However, Lin, who for safety concerns is not using his full name, saw a silver lining from the attack. He felt a mix of excitement and bitterness, thinking, “this might be my last chance to get legal status.” 

Becoming a victim of a crime could allow him to apply for a U visa, a nonimmigrant visa for victims of certain crimes who have suffered abuse and are willing to assist law enforcement. A U visa holder can live and work in the U.S. for up to four years and apply for lawful permanent residence after holding the U visa for three years.

Also Read: Immigrant Victims Who Cooperate With Police Must Wait 20 Years for U Visa

Lin believed that a U visa would grant him the legal status in the United States that he had longed for for years. He filed a police report at the 5th Precinct, hoping that the document would help him apply for a U visa.

Lin’s thinking reveals a poignant reality. Currently, while the U.S. is grappling with the increasing amount of asylum seekers arriving here. There remains the longstanding challenge of addressing the thousands of undocumented immigrants who, like Lin, have been waiting for a pathway to citizenship for decades. Recently, reports have revealed the Biden administration is closer to announcing a new immigration relief program for undocumented immigrants who have been in the U.S. for decades and still don’t have a pathway to legal status. However, the policy, “parole in place,” would most likely benefit immigrants who are married to U.S. citizens.

Also Read: Parole in Place Update: Biden Expands Eligibility For Undocumented Immigrant Spouses

Some Chinese undocumented immigrants told Documented that their lack of legal status forces them to reside on the fringes of the social safety net. For some Chinese undocumented immigrants who arrived in the U.S. in the 1990s, and are still undocumented, another dilemma arises: They find themselves in a “stateless” predicament where neither their country of origin nor their country of residence recognizes them as lawful citizens, leaving them with a sense of not belonging anywhere. 

It is uncertain how many Chinese undocumented immigrants in NYC face similar challenges to Lin’s, Margaret W. Wong, the managing partner of Margaret W. Wong & Associates, LLC, shared with Documented. However, many Chinese undocumented immigrants who arrived in the U.S. during the 1990s continue to remain undocumented to this day. 

According to Mobile Pathways, a tech nonprofit advancing equitable immigration access and support for underserved immigrants and partner nonprofits, between 1990 and 2000, only 12,834 asylum applications for Chinese asylum seekers were granted out of 56,060, or 23%. While some of the asylum seekers whose cases were denied returned to China, many chose to remain in the U.S. The Migration Policy Institute, reports that, as of 2019, about 99,000 undocumented immigrants from China and Hong Kong reside in New York.

In the early 1990s, during the initial phases of China’s opening up to foreign trade and investment and implementing free-market reforms, there still remained a substantial economic disparity between China and the U.S. 

Mingli Chen, Managing Attorney at Chen Ran Law Group, P.C., told Documented that he believes the primary motivations for many Chinese migrants from China, particularly from the southern regions, were obtaining permanent residency and achieving higher incomes instead of political pressure from the Chinese government.

Wong and Chen attribute the relatively high denial rate of asylum applications in the early 2000s to widespread immigration fraud and a shortage of qualified bilingual immigration lawyers in the Chinese community. “I feel bad because most of them would fabricate stories on one-child policy and I don’t think anyone wants to lie,” said Wong. “The FBI and DHS also arrested a lot of Chinese bankers, lawyers, paralegals and consultants because of fabricating stories.”

Also Read: Fear Across Borders: Chinese Americans and the Shadow of Surveillance

Wong believes that most of the undocumented Chinese immigrants who are in their 60s or 70s, now have either accumulated sufficient savings to return home and reunite with their grandchildren or have resigned themselves to the reality of remaining in the U.S. without documentation.

Aigan Jiang, who sought asylum in the U.S. in 1990, is now 76 years old. Retirement will remain out of reach until he attains legal status. Jiang’s first appeal for asylum was affirmed in 2000 and his final appeal was denied in 2004. Jiang said his case was denied because he trusted phony or untrustworthy immigration lawyers. The first person he hired, Te-Hu Tsuei, was indicted on grand larceny charges in 2010 for falsely claiming to be a lawyer. Jiang said Tsuei charged him about $3,000 but did nothing about his case after receiving the payment. He then went to a real lawyer, Robert E. Porges, who was later sentenced to over eight years in prison for his role in an immigrant-smuggling ring. This time, Jiang was charged $5,000, and he said Porges falsely made statements about his experience, which led to his case being denied.

Currently residing with his 72-year-old wife in a cramped room on the second floor of a house in Brooklyn, Jiang takes occasional gigs as a construction worker or restaurant worker to support his family. He explained that with his immigration status, his wife, who is an American citizen, refrains from applying for public benefits for which she qualifies. 

“We are afraid that I might become a ‘public charge,’ ” Jiang said.

Returning to China is not an option for Jiang either. 

“I have been living in the U.S. for so many years that I have nothing left there. I don’t even know if my residency registration in China is still valid.”

Jiang emphasized that over the past three decades in the U.S., he has been a law-abiding resident. “I pay taxes, volunteer in Chinese delivery worker organizations to advocate for their rights, and have never committed any crimes. I’ve made contributions to society, and I just hope that the U.S. government can grant me legal status so I can live with dignity when I am old.”

While New York City provides housing, legal, and economic assistance to recent asylum seekers, Jiang and Lin are also urging the government to pay attention to undocumented immigrants who have been working and living in this city for years. 

The lack of resources and a pathway to citizenship make it difficult for them to see hope for a change in their status, they told Documented. Four and a half years ago, Jiang’s daughter applied for an I-601A provisional waiver on his behalf, which allows Jiang to request a waiver of his unlawful presence. However, there has been no substantial progress in the case, he said.

Also Read: New Data from Ecuador Offers Best Insights on the Demographic Profile, Major Drivers of Chinese Migrants to the U.S.

According to Ting Li, principal attorney of Li & Wakida LLP, the current processing time of the Form I-601, application for waiver of grounds of inadmissibility, is about 44 months, which Li says for them is, “very little way to change the immigration status.” 

For many undocumented immigrants who have become victims of crimes like Lin, the U visa becomes one of the few pathways to apply for a green card. However, Li pointed out that some immigrants who have become victims of a crime, even when seriously injured, may use fake names when reporting to the police out of fear of exposing their identity, thus missing the opportunity to apply for the U visa for which they are eligible.

Li highlighted that many people are anticipating a potential amnesty or legal pathway for undocumented individuals. However, predicting this is difficult due to the current political climate, which has tended toward anti-immigrant sentiments. 

“Even in Democratic-leaning cities like New York, there’s a growing number of protests against immigration,” noted Li. However, there’s a recognition that society cannot support an influx of undocumented individuals indefinitely. “There is a need for reform for those who have been here for so long, have no criminal records, and pay taxes,” he said. “There should be something for them.”

When Lin left his wife and his two sons behind in Fujian Province in 1990, he embarked on his journey to the U.S. to seek asylum for fathering two children and being a victim of China’s one-child policy. 

Also Read: He Found the American Dream on China’s TikTok, the Reality Was More Complicated

Seven years after he first applied for asylum in 1992, and nine years after arriving in the U.S., his application was denied. Lin said he believes his case was denied because the judge who handled it didn’t believe his story. “It’s so miserable that one person’s decision can totally change another person’s life forever,” he said.

Without legal status and language skills, Lin took low-income jobs in garment factories and restaurants in NYC. It took him five years working day and night to pay off the $30,000 he owed to the smuggler while also financially supporting his family in China.

Despite enduring the recession in the garment industry after 9/11 and the blow of the financial crisis in 2007, Lin remained steadfast in pursuing his American dream for over three decades. 

The pandemic proved to be the final straw.

Many restaurants took a significant hit in business and Lin became unemployed. During the pandemic, he relied on his meager savings and government relief funds distributed during that time to make ends meet. 

“Over the past few years of the pandemic, I could barely support myself,” he said in a phone interview. “I lost my job and had to rely on my previous savings and government assistance to get through the difficult times.” 

Overwhelmed by his own challenges, he had to stop sending money back home to his family. His family reached out to him less and less, until one day, their communication stopped. Lin admitted that after many years away from home, he had become estranged from his family. The only link to his wife and children was the monthly remittance he sent home, and now that, too, was gone. “During the pandemic, I lost my income, perhaps they stopped contacting me because they no longer see value in me.”

Now, at the age of 68, Lin finds himself in a difficult situation where neither China nor the U.S. is able to provide essential care for him in his old age. It’s hard for him to return to China to reunite with his family because of their estranged relationship and the cancellation of his “household registration” in China, which gives him certain basic rights as a resident of the Fujian province. 

Without household registration, he cannot access essential social services such as affordable healthcare and social security benefits. But on the other hand in the U.S., he cannot receive basic social benefits like social security retirement benefits or housing subsidies due to his immigration status. 

Also Read: After a Treacherous Journey to the U.S., Chinese Asylum Seekers Find Language Barriers Hold Them Back

“I have never stopped paying taxes during the past years, and I have never really used the public benefits before. But now when I need [the benefits], I don’t have access,” said Lin, expressing his insecurity as a senior lacking immigration status and social benefits in the U.S. 

“In the early 1990s, many people in their 30s came to the U.S. like me. Now they are in their 60s or 70s, they are old, but they cannot access the services and resources they need,” said Lin. 

His voice trembled slightly. 

“We have a home we can’t return to, a country we can’t go back to.”

April Xu
April Xu is an award-winning bilingual journalist with over 9 years of experience covering the Chinese community in New York City.
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