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In Southeast Asia, the US Should Talk Loudly About Immigration

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In Southeast Asia, the US Should Talk Loudly About Immigration

Washington ought to be doing more to attract the region’s best and brightest.

In Southeast Asia, the US Should Talk Loudly About Immigration

The U.S.-Mexico border fence in El Paso, Texas, United States.

Credit: Depositphotos

It’s not something that any U.S. administration would make too much noise about for fear of inflaming its domestic audience, especially as it’s likely to be the biggest stick with which the Republicans will strike the Biden administration come November’s presidential elections. But Washington ought to talk loudly about just how many Asians, especially Chinese, are flocking into the United States, many by illegal means.

In November, the New York Times reported that more than 24,000 Chinese citizens had been apprehended crossing into the United States from Mexico in 2023 alone, a number higher than in the preceding 10 years combined. And that’s only those that were apprehended. Many more are entering illegally. Many fly into Ecuador, where they don’t need a visa, before heading north. Poorer Chinese do so on foot, crossing through South and Central America. The wealthy fly directly into a Mexican border city and pay a smuggler a few hundred dollars to cross the Rio Grande.

If Washington wants to use what it has at hand to conduct soft-power propaganda against the Beijing regime, it could simply follow this up by asking how many people are desperate to migrate to China. The answer: comparatively very few.

In 2017, the United Nations estimated that 0.07 percent of all people in China were migrants (and most of those were from Hong Kong and Macau), meaning China had the lowest share of migrants of any country in the world. In the same year, migrants comprised 15.6 percent of the U.S. population, 19 percent of Germany’s population and 30 percent of Australia’s. Foreigners constitute 2 percent of Japan’s population and 3 percent of South Korea’s. More recently, The Economist put China’s foreign-born population at 0.1 percent of the population, which may have been rounding up. As the magazine stated, rather unsubtly, “Even North Korea has a higher proportion of immigrants than China.”

The apparent reason is that Beijing wants racial purity, ethnic cohesion, and for the Chinese themselves to migrate abroad to free up jobs and make money for Beijing elsewhere in the world. Yet it could also be that China isn’t that attractive to migrants. Its lowest minimum wage is $208 per month, compared to around $141 in Vietnam and $202 in Cambodia. The lowest in Thailand is around $273. According to a 2022 academic paper, “One credible source estimates that there are 100,000 irregular Vietnamese labor migrants in China.”

One might expect the Vietnamese to enter China illegally, given their long, shared border. But to put that in perspective, there are reportedly 76,000 unauthorized Vietnamese immigrants in the United States, despite it being much more difficult for them to get into than China, according to the Migration Policy Institute. The same institution reckons that there were 370,000 unauthorized Filipinos in the U.S. (as of 2019). Based on an admittedly old survey on overseas Filipino workers, the majority (3,353,891) were in the United States. China came ninth on the list (with 229,638), lower than Italy.

Authorities in Hong Kong are reportedly engaged in a vast crackdown on illegal immigration, but, even still, the numbers are small. The police said this month that they caught 1,313 people last year who had illegally entered the territory. All this, and China desperately needs migrants to fix its shrinking working-age population. Moreover, President Xi Jinping has said he wants China to become a hub for global talent. But, per a South China Morning Post headline from a few years ago, China may well want to be a global talent hub, “but what if they don’t want to come?” It was estimated in 2019 that there were 12,799 overseas Singaporeans in China, about the same number as in Canada.

Laos and Cambodia are Beijing’s closest partners in the region, but few Laotian or Cambodian emigrants are heading northwards for a better life. Instead, almost all head to either Thailand or a Western country – the U.S., South Korea, Japan, Australia, or somewhere in Europe. They’re not alone. A Gallup survey from 2021 found that 16 percent of adults worldwide, around almost 900 million people, said they would leave their own country permanently if they could. (Interestingly, some 15 percent of Southeast Asians expressed this desire, up from 6 percent from a previous poll conducted in 2011.)

When asked, almost a fifth of all those surveyed worldwide said their preferred destination would be the U.S., followed by Canada, Germany, Spain, and France. China, surprisingly or not, wasn’t on the list. Despite this, we hear constantly from certain Southeast Asian politicians that their countries ought to adopt the Chinese model. But, one might ask, how the Chinese model is so attractive yet so few Southeast Asians emigrate to China; how is it such a compelling alternative to the Western model when most Southeast Asian emigrants would, if it were possible, head straight to the West? According to the latest State of Southeast Asia survey, just 5.4 percent of Southeast Asian elites said they would prefer to study at a Chinese university, compared to 25 percent who said an American institution and around 30 percent who said either a British or Australian university. Just 3.4 percent would choose China as their ideal tourism destination.

On February 1, Harry Hannah, a retired Central Intelligence Agency officer, wrote in a policy memo that “the United States should significantly increase immigration as a central element of a national security strategy that maximizes America’s strength as a growing, dynamic, open, and diverse society, admired and widely engaged with the world, relative to China as a demographically stagnant, closed, and largely homogeneous society.” He went on:  “Although encouraging immigration may not translate into short-term diplomatic gains for Washington, this is a way to build broader and enduring ties between peoples and societies.…it’s an area of considerable potential advantage for the U.S. over China which has chosen to not build such societal relations.”

Indeed, Washington ought to be doing more to welcome Southeast Asia’s best and brightest, while also easing avenues for the lower-skilled to enter, at least non-permanently. Perhaps this is politically naïve of me; it’s probable that America’s immigration laws will only tighten from now on, especially if a Republican wins in November’s presidential elections. Even then, though, there’s propaganda to be made: “just look at how many Chinese are willing to endure the risks and costs to illegally enter the U.S.”; “just look at how many Southeast Asians take the far more costly and complicated routes to the U.S. than the simpler routes to China.”