China Turns Away Deportees from United States China is refusing to take back thousands of its citizens who are being deported from the United States as illegal immigrants. The Chinese government says it is protesting American asylum laws, but now immigrants who have been told to leave America have no place to go.

China Turns Away Deportees from United States

China Turns Away Deportees from United States

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China is refusing to take back thousands of its citizens who are being deported from the United States as illegal immigrants. The Chinese government says it is protesting American asylum laws, but now immigrants who have been told to leave America have no place to go.

ALEX CHADWICK, host:

This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Alex Chadwick.

LUKE BURBANK, host:

And I'm Luke Burbank.

In a few minutes: how to keep your shoes on when you're going through security at the airport.

CHADWICK: First, thousands of illegal Chinese immigrants have been ordered to leave this country. But China won't take them back, a protest over U.S. asylum laws that protect Chinese political dissidents.

Rob Schmitz of KQED San Francisco reports.

ROB SCHMITZ: Every day federal judges issue removal orders to hundreds of immigrants who came to the U.S. illegally. Once an immigrant receives this news, it's up to government officials like Gary Mead to work with the immigrant's home country to obtain travel documents.

Mr. GARY MEAD (U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement): If that travel document takes a long time to be issued, then it could be a long time before the immigrant hears from us.

SCHMITZ: And if you're from China, says Mead, odds are you've been waiting a long time indeed. Mead works for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, a branch of the Department of Homeland Security. His office has received final removal orders for around 40,000 Chinese nationals who could be deported any minute. That is, if the government of China would just cooperate.

Mr. MEAD: We essentially leave open everything we can possibly think of as options to help them issue the travel documents, but in spite of those efforts the documents aren't forthcoming.

SCHMITZ: What's worse, Mead says, is that in the next couple of years an estimated 40,000 more Chinese immigrants will be given their final removal orders. Immigration experts say China's refusal to take back immigrants is a protest of U.S. asylum laws that China believes protect political dissidents.

China's foreign ministry responded to NPR with a written statement on this issue by Liu Jianchao's, its spokesman. Liu said the issue is complicated. He added, though, that countries like the U.S. that grant political asylum are not helping to curb illegal immigration.

Former INS commissioner Doris Meissner says whatever its reason, China's stance on this issue is more or less a welcome mat for those who try to come here illegally.

Ms. DORIS MEISSNER (Former INS Commissioner): It's sending a message that if you get here, it's going to be pretty hard for you to be sent back, even if you're not supposed to be here. We don't want that signal circulating around China, but that is, bottom line, what the outcome is.

SCHMITZ: When she was head of INS, Meissner met numerous times with Chinese officials to try and change their stance, but was ultimately unsuccessful. The current secretary of homeland security, Michael Chertoff, has also traveled to Beijing to try to resolve this issue but came back largely empty handed.

In the meantime, Chinese immigrants who have been ruled deported wait and wait. Most are supposed to check in with an immigration officer each month, but according to attorney Dan Hamlin(ph), who represents some of the thousands of Chinese immigrants in Los Angeles, these check-ins oftentimes stop after immigrants learn they're marked for deportation.

Mr. DAN HAMLIN (Attorney): And when I explain to them, OK, there is a final order here, there're no further appeals to pursue, we don't often there back from them. So I don't know exactly what becomes of these people.

SCHMITZ: In many cases, the government doesn't know where they are either. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement reports around 20,000 of the Chinese immigrants waiting to go back to China have disappeared. For those who do check in with immigration officials, the stress of someday returning to China can be agonizing.

KIT (Chinese Immigrant): I have no family member there. I have no place to live. I have no friends and I really honestly don't know what am I going to do.

SCHMITZ: Kit, who asked that his full name not be used for fear of reprisals if he's eventually deported to China, originally came to the U.S. with a green card. It was taken away from him 10 years ago when he was convicted of armed robbery. After he served his time, the U.S. government tried to deport him, but China refused to take him back.

The U.S. government was forced to release Kit back to his home in New York with a temporary work permit. Earlier this year, the government once more tried to deport Kit, detaining him for six months, but again China refused to take him back, and again he was released. Kit worries that another unannounced detention could happen any day.

KIT: Every night I be thinking the same question over and over, because I can't keep on living like this. I'm kind of like living like a ghost.

SCHMITZ: By the end of next year, there could be an estimated 80,000 people like Kit living between two countries who can't agree on immigration policy. And the U.S. has little recourse.

In the end, say immigration experts like Doris Meissner, the only sensible alternative would be to start denying visas to the thousands of Chinese who come here for educational and business opportunities, a move, she adds, that won't happen because it would hurt the U.S. economy as much as it would hurt China.

For NPR News, I'm Rob Schmitz in Los Angeles.

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