Chinese immigrants condemn Trump’s ‘migrant army against U.S.’ narrative

The daily struggle of Chinese immigrants in the U.S. is a far cry from the picture presidential candidate Donald Trump and other Republican leaders have sought to paint of them as a coordinated group of ‘military-age’ men who have come to the country to build an ‘army’ and attack America

Published - May 15, 2024 02:02 pm IST - New York

Wang Gang, a Chinese immigrant, talks with the driver of a car with others as they try to get a daily paid job working construction in New York, U.S.A.

Wang Gang, a Chinese immigrant, talks with the driver of a car with others as they try to get a daily paid job working construction in New York, U.S.A. | Photo Credit: AP

It was 7 a.m. on a Friday when Wang Gang, a 36-year-old Chinese immigrant, jostled for a day job in New York City’s Flushing neighbourhood.

When a potential employer pulled up near the street corner, home to a Chinese bakery and pharmacy, Mr. 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.

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

As Mr. 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 organisations 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.

‘Fuelling hate’

“Trump’s dehumanising 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.

“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.

Mr. Wang, who travelled 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.

Immigrants 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 society where they could not 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.

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,” Mr. 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.”

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 said that Mr. Trump’s claims of a Chinese migrant army were “an egregious mismatch of the facts.” The Department of Homeland Security did not respond to requests for comment.

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