A sizable portion of the undocumented population in the US is Chinese, yet they are an understudied group. We integrate a multidisciplinary body of work on undocumented Chinese migration with the sociology of migration and analyze interviews with undocumented migrants, community organizers, social workers, and others working in the Chinese community in New York City, as well as participant observation of community events. We show that restrictive immigration policies exclude most Chinese migrants from legal entry into the US, force many to endure dangerous migration routes, incur extraordinary debt and bind Chinese migrants’ experience of illegality with asylum seeking. The asylum regime is putatively humanitarian but inflicts legal violence on migrants and diverts efforts away from collective organizing for rights-based remedies towards debt-fueled migration and asylum seeking, a process that keeps migrants in lengthy periods of legal precarity and reproduces national and global inequalities. Our study contributes to the literature on migrant illegality in sociology that is primarily based on the experiences of Latinx migrants. We highlight the continuities and unique features of legal violence experienced by undocumented Chinese migrants.
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