By Mark Hosenball and Tim Reid
In early June, in cities across America, U.S. immigration agents arrested more than two dozen Chinese nationals with unfulfilled deportation orders, telling them that after years of delay, China was finally taking steps to provide the paperwork needed to expel them from the U.S.
But, not for the first time, China failed to provide the necessary documents, and three months later not one of those arrested has been deported, and many have been released from custody. They form part of a backlog of nearly 39,000 people Chinese nationals awaiting deportation for violating U.S. immigration laws, 900 of them classed as violent offenders, according to immigration officials.
The issue, which is likely to come up during a state visit to Washington later this month by Chinese President Xi Jinping, has further strained a U.S.-China relationship already frayed by tensions over economic policy, suspected Chinese cyber hacking and Beijing’s growing military assertiveness.
Meanwhile, China is pushing the U.S. on a different immigration issue: the return of Chinese citizens it says are fugitives from corruption investigations at home.
The June arrests, described by immigration lawyers, U.S. officials and some of the arrestees themselves, grew out of meetings aimed at speeding up a clogged process that has long frustrated the United States.
China has been extremely slow, U.S. immigration officials say, to provide the proof of citizenship necessary to send visa violators home. Some of the nearly 39,000 Chinese immigrants awaiting deportation have been under orders to leave for well over a decade, and the backlog continues to grow.
An apparent breakthrough came, officials say, at a March meeting in Beijing between Sarah Saldana, director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), and Zheng Baigang, a top Chinese Public Security official. Their discussions produced a “memorandum of understanding,” agreed to by both countries, to help expedite the process.
In April, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson traveled to Beijing, where his Chinese counterparts “agreed to begin repatriation flights from the U.S. for Chinese nationals with final deportation orders,” said DHS Press Secretary Marsha Catron.
As part of that agreement, two Chinese officials traveled to the U.S. to interview those arrested in the June sweep, along with more than 50 others on the deportation list, including many with criminal convictions in the United States. China promised their cases would be resolved quickly.
In the past, an ICE official said, China has explained delays by saying it can be difficult to verify citizenship, a process that might require visits to distant villages and towns.
But one U.S. official suggested another reason for the holdups: “They do not want these people back.”
A senior Obama administration official told Reuters, ahead of Xi’s visit, that the U.S. would like to see China move on this issue. “We have made that very clear, and pressed them to do so,” the official said. Read more