As China continues to grapple with post-pandemic economic woes such as reduced growth and high youth unemployment, an increasing number of Chinese migrants are choosing to enter the United States illegally in hopes of freedom and a better future.

The number of apprehensions of Chinese nationals at the border with Mexico in fiscal 2023 alone far surpassed the total for the preceding decade, topping 24,000 according to government data. At one place near the border in California, a local estimated that such Chinese have come to account for roughly 30 percent of the area's illegal entries.

On Jan. 23, among the approximately 120 migrants who ended up at the U.S.-Mexico border section at Jacumba Hot Springs that day, a Chinese family of three appeared exhausted yet excited as border patrol agents apprehended them.

A Chinese family sits in front of a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border in Jacumba Hot Springs, California, on Jan. 23, 2024, after illegally crossing into the Unites States through a gap in the wall. (Kyodo) ==Kyodo

The man, who identified himself as Zhang, and his wife and daughter had just completed a journey of more than 50 days that took them from China through 11 countries, including Thailand, Morocco and Spain, with grueling travel north from Ecuador to the U.S. border. After climbing a small dirt hill, they reached American soil at last.

"Only two characters come to mind -- 'ziyou,'" said Zhang's wife with a cheerful smile, referring to the word for "freedom" in Mandarin.

Chinese illegal migrants walk down a dusty road along the wall on the U.S.-Mexico border in Jacumba Hot Springs, California, on Jan. 23, 2024, to a point where they can surrender to U.S. Border Patrol. (Kyodo) ==Kyodo

Using the popular social media app Douyin, the Zhangs followed the route known as "zouxian," a Chinese phrase that means "walk the line," to make their way to the United States from South America.

The family said that before learning about the route, they tried to obtain visas, but were denied twice. They listed China's communist education system, environmental concerns, and the impact of the zero-COVID policy on their small businesses as some of their motivations for leaving despite the risks involved.

Leaving China without raising suspicion is not easy, Zhang's wife said, suggesting that Chinese authorities are wary of granting visa requests to visit the United States due to concern that applicants may seek asylum there. Once denied, "you might not be able to leave the country (legally)," she said.

According to U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the border patrol made over 24,000 apprehensions of Chinese nationals at the U.S.-Mexico border in the year to September 2023. In comparison, during the 11-year span from fiscal 2012 to fiscal 2022, the total number of Chinese nationals apprehended was less than 15,000.

Sam Schultz, 69, a local who provides food, water and shelter to migrants who cross the border mainly into Jacumba Hot Springs, noticed a major increase of Chinese migrants around late fall in 2023. On Christmas Eve, for instance, he observed around 450 migrants who arrived during the day, and estimated that about 30 percent of them were Chinese.

Choosing a route that would attract the least attention and be the safest for their daughter, the Zhangs successfully left China.

Chinese illegal migrants stand in line in front of U.S. Border Patrol agents at the U.S.-Mexico border in Jacumba Hot Springs, California, on Jan. 23, 2024. (Kyodo) ==Kyodo

After passing through many countries, they reached Ecuador, which Chinese nationals can enter without a visa, and proceeded from there on foot and with local transportation, often relying on local guides. In total, the trip cost the Zhangs around 300,000 yuan ($42,000).

In Panama, they also went through the Darien Gap jungle, where some migrants die in accidents such as drowning. According to the Panamanian immigration authorities, the number of Chinese nationals crossing the jungle on a monthly basis more than tripled in 2023, reaching 2,974 in December.

"At the moment, we do not have any jobs set up. We are thinking about settling down first," Zhang said. "First, we want to see if we can get our kid in school right away, because she hasn't been in school for the past two months."

Out of over 4,570 cases involving Chinese migrants, there was an asylum grant rate of over 80 percent in fiscal 2023, compared with around 50 percent for all nationalities, according to Syracuse University's Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse.

For those entering without visas, seeking asylum is the "only relief for them," and the most difficult step in starting new lives in the United States is "how to get legal status," said Xiaosheng Huang, a Chinese American lawyer who has many Chinese migrants as clients.