Trump Suggests Chinese Migrants Are in the US to Build an 'Army.' The Migrants Tell Another Story

Wang Gang, 36, front, a Chinese immigrant, talks with the driver of a car with others
Wang Gang, 36, front, a Chinese immigrant, talks with the driver of a car with others as they try to get a daily paid job working construction or in another trade in the Flushing neighborhood of the Queens borough of New York on May 3, 2024. (AP Photo/Fu Ting)

NEW YORK — It was 7 a.m. on a recent Friday when Wang Gang, a 36-year-old Chinese immigrant, jostled for a day job in New York City's Flushing neighborhood.

When a potential employer pulled up near the street corner, home to a Chinese bakery and pharmacy, Wang and dozens of other men swarmed around the car. They were hoping to be picked for work on a construction site, at a farm, as a mover — anything that would pay.

Wang had no luck, even as he waited for two more hours. It would be another day without a job since he crossed the southern U.S. border illegally in February, seeking better financial prospects than he had in his hometown of Wuhan, China.

The daily struggle of Chinese immigrants in Flushing is a far cry from the picture former President Donald Trump and other Republicans have sought to paint of them as a coordinated group of “military-age” men who have come to the United States to build an “army” and attack America.

Since the start of the year, as the Chinese newcomers have been trying to find their footing in the U.S., Trump has alluded to “fighting-age” or “military-age” Chinese men at least six times and suggested at least twice that they were forming a migrant “army." It's a talking point that is being amplified in conservative media and on social platforms.

“They’re coming in from China — 31, 32,000 over the last few months — and they’re all military age and they mostly are men,” Trump said during a campaign rally last month in Schnecksville, Pennsylvania. “And it sounds like to me, are they trying to build a little army in our country? Is that what they’re trying to do?”

As Trump and others exploit a surge in Chinese border crossings and real concerns about China's geopolitical threat to further their political aims, Asian advocacy organizations worry the rhetoric could encourage further harassment and violence toward the Asian community. Asian people in the U.S. already experienced a spike in hate incidents fueled by xenophobic rhetoric during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Trump’s dehumanizing rhetoric and blatant attacks against immigrant communities will, without question, only fuel more hate against not only Chinese immigrants but all Asian Americans in the U.S.," Cynthia Choi, co-founder of Stop AAPI Hate and co-executive director of Chinese for Affirmative Action, said in a statement to The Associated Press. “In the midst of an already inflamed political climate and election year, we know all too well how harmful such rhetoric can be.”

Gregg Orton, national director of the National Council of Asian Pacific Americans, said many Asian American communities remain “gripped by fear” and that some Asians still feel uncomfortable about taking public transportation.

"To know that we might be staring down another round of that, it’s pretty sobering,” he said.

'This trip is deadly'

Wang, who traveled several weeks from Ecuador to the southern U.S. border, then spent 48 hours in an immigration detention facility before heading to Flushing, said the idea that Chinese migrants were building a military “does not exist” among the immigrants he has met.

“It is impossible that they would walk on foot for over one month” for that purpose, he said. "We came here to make money.”

Immigrants who spoke to the AP in Flushing, a densely populated Chinese cultural enclave in Queens, said they came to the U.S. to escape poverty and financial losses from China's strict lockdown during the pandemic, or to escape the threat of imprisonment in a repressive society where they couldn’t speak or exercise their religion freely.

Many said they continue to struggle to get by. Life in the U.S. is not what they had imagined.

Since late 2022 — when China's three-year COVID-19 lockdown began to lift — the U.S. has seen a sharp rise in the number of Chinese migrants. In 2023, U.S. authorities arrested more than 37,000 Chinese nationals at the U.S.-Mexico border, more than 10 times the previous year's number. In December alone, border officials arrested 5,951 Chinese nationals on the southern border, a record monthly high, before the number trended down during the first three months of this year.

The U.S. and China just recently began cooperating again to deport Chinese immigrants who were in the country illegally.

Yet with tens of thousands of Chinese newcomers who have crossed into the U.S. illegally, there has been no evidence that they have tried to mount a military force or training network.

It’s true that the bulk of those who have come are single adults, according to federal data. While the data doesn't include gender, there are more men than women on the perilous route, which typically involves catching a flight to South America and then making the long, arduous trek north to the U.S. border.

Chinese immigrants in Flushing said one reason men may be coming alone in higher numbers is the expense — often more than $10,000 per person to cover airfare, lodging, payments to local guides and bribes to police in countries along their journey. Another could be China's longtime family planning policy that skewered the gender ratio toward males.

There’s also the danger, said a 35-year-old Chinese man who only gave his family name of Yin because he was concerned about the safety of his wife and children, who remain in China.

He had arrived in Flushing in late April, five weeks after he left the southern Chinese city of Shenzhen. He had traveled through Panama’s dangerous Darien Gap jungle and across Mexico. Signs of the journey were still fresh: His hair was messy, skin tanned with fine wrinkles, and his cardigan, once white, had not been washed for weeks.

“This trip is deadly. People die. The trip isn’t suitable for women — it’s not suitable for anyone,” said Yin.

He said that as the breadwinner, he came alone, with the hope his family could join him later.

'Chasing a better life'

While some in China have chosen to leave through investment schemes or talent programs in developed nations, those without resources set off for Latin America after learning from social media posts about the journey north.

Upon arriving, most of them fan out to large cities such as Los Angeles, Chicago and New York with well-established Chinese communities, where they hope to get work and start a new life.

Immigrants who arrived in Flushing said they came to America to escape China, not to fight on its behalf.

Thirty-six-year-old Chen Wang, from the southeastern Chinese province of Fujian, said he decided to come to the U.S. in late 2021 after he posted comments critical of the ruling party on Twitter. He was admonished by local police.

“I feared that I could be locked up, so I came to America,” Chen said.

More than two years later, he is still unemployed and lives in a tent in the woods that he has made into a home. He built a fence from dead branches and dug a ditch so he could hand-wash his laundry and wash himself.

He said life in the U.S. has fallen short of his expectations, but he hopes someday to get legal status so he can travel freely around the world and live a simple life in a self-built cabin.

Chen, who served briefly in the Chinese military two decades ago, said he mostly encountered people from the bottom of Chinese society during his trek through Central America. He met no one else who had served in the Chinese military and described his fellow Chinese on the journey as simply people “chasing a better life.”

Long history of Asian stereotypes

To be sure, U.S. intelligence leaders have grave concerns about the threat China’s authoritarian government poses to the country through its espionage, military capabilities and more. There also have been crimes committed by Chinese immigrants, including the arrest in March of a Chinese national breaching a military base in California, but there has been no evidence to support the assertion that migrants from China are coming to the U.S. to fight Americans.

Deputy Secretary of State Kurt Campbell called the Chinese nationals “economic migrants" during an April town hall meeting hosted by the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations.

China has said it strongly opposes illegal immigration, and police there have arrested some who have tried to leave. Social media posts that offer advice and guides to come to the U.S. illegally have been censored in China. Instead, there are posts warning about dangers along the way and racial discrimination in the U.S.

China’s foreign ministry told the AP that Trump’s claims of a Chinese migrant army were “an egregious mismatch of the facts.” The Department of Homeland Security didn't respond to requests for comment.

Steven Cheung, communications director for the Trump campaign, said in an emailed statement that every American should be concerned about military-age Chinese men crossing into the U.S.

“These individuals have not been vetted or screened, and we have no idea who they are affiliated with or what their intention is,” Cheung said. “This sets a dangerous precedent for bad actors and potentially nefarious individuals to exploit Joe Biden’s porous border to send countless military-aged men into the United States completely unfettered.”

The army-building narrative has been shared by many other conservatives.

“They are fighting-age males, primarily single, and you know, this isn’t a coincidence,” Republican Rep. Mike Garcia of California said during a Fox Business interview last month, nodding when host Maria Bartiromo suggested the immigrants could later be used as “saboteurs” if Chinese President Xi Jinping “directs that.”

Sapna Cheryan, a psychology professor at the University of Washington, said the claims about Chinese migrants — made without evidence — build on a long history of pervasive stereotypes that Asian people do not belong in the country, ideas that have fueled acts of violence against Asian Americans.

“If that rhetoric is happening again, one thing we might be able to predict is, well, people will probably take that and feel emboldened to engage in these heinous acts,” she said.

Li Kai, also known as Khaled, a 44-year-old Muslim from Tangshan in the northern Hebei province, a city close to Beijing, said he was worried about Trump’s statements regarding illegal immigration and Muslims, but said he has no choice other than to make his new life in the U.S. work.

He was one of the few who made the trip with his family. He shares a bunk bed and sofa with his wife and two sons in a temporary home in Flushing where he has placed an American flag on the wall.

Li said they fled China last year, after he participated in a gathering over the future of a local mosque that was broken up by riot police and he feared his own arrest. He chose the U.S. because it is a free society, where his children have learned to recite from the Quran.

He said the migrants he encountered on his journey all left China for the U.S. to try to improve their prospects in life, and he was grateful for that opportunity. When his sons are at school, he studies for a commercial driver's license and then hopes to find a job and start paying taxes.

“Now that I have brought my family here, I want to have a stable life here," he said. “I would like to pay back.”


Tang reported from Washington.

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