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.

Wang Gang, 36, center left wearing backpack, talks with the driver of a car as he and others try to get a job for the day in Flushing, Queens, on May 3, 2024.
Wang Gang, 36, center left wearing a backpack, talks with the driver of a car as he and others try to get jobs for the day in Flushing, Queens, on May 3.Fu Ting / AP

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.

Chinese migrant Li Kai
Chinese migrant Li Kai, aka Khaled, studies for a commercial driving license in his apartment in Flushing, Queens.Sait Serkan Gurbuz / AP

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.