Four months, $75,000: How Vietnamese are being smuggled to the U.S.

Desperation and false promises drive a ten-fold increase in land crossings.

May 7, 2024

By Cao Nguyen for RFA Vietnamese

One morning last April, at around 3 a.m., a van pulled up to a hotel in Tijuana, Mexico. Minh squeezed in alongside 13 others and the driver set off for the border.

For 45 minutes they drove through narrow forest roads and up steep hills. As dawn broke, they drew up to a tall steel fence separating the U.S. from Mexico.

At a signal, the driver told them to run.

“We were told to run to the border, there is a big rock there, we would climb over that rock to get to the U.S. soil,” Minh, whose name has been changed for security reasons, told Radio Free Asia in an interview this year. On the other side, they found border agents who lined up the asylum seekers, took copies of their passports and led them to detention centers for registration before their release.

While asylum seekers who crossed the San Diego border that day came from across the globe, all 14 passengers in Minh’s van were Vietnamese. Tempted by rumors of a better life abroad and unwilling to wait out a sluggish visa process, Vietnamese have begun crossing into the U.S. on foot in unprecedented numbers, an RFA investigation has found.

Just 263 Vietnamese crossed into the United States via its border with Mexico between October 2021 and October 2022, but nearly 3,300 made that crossing a year later, according to figures from the U.S. Customs and Border Protection, or CBP. That number is certain to be surpassed in 2024. From last October to this March, nearly 2,400 have already crossed.

The surge in migration to the U.S. has found parallels elsewhere. In April, the UK’s Home Office announced a partnership with Vietnam to tackle illegal migration routes amid skyrocketing numbers of risky small boat crossings over the English Channel. In 2022, 1% of those arriving on small boat arrivals came from Vietnam, rising to 5% in 2023. So far this year, more Vietnamese have crossed by boat than any other nationality.

But those figures still pale in comparison to the numbers arriving in the U.S.


Many Vietnamese looking to enter the U.S. on foot have been able to fly into Mexico after obtaining an illicit Japan residency card. Others take a perilous route through South America that has become common for many asylum seekers.


The trips are all arduous and come with emotional, physical and financial perils.


“We had to pay a lot and it was dangerous, not like what they told us — that we would just sit on an airplane. I think there were too many dangers on the way,” Minh said. “I figured out that with the same amount of money that we paid [for the smuggler] we could have come to the U.S. legally.”

Asylum seekers walk along the San Diego border in April 2023. (Image: Vietnamese asylum seeker)

Deciding to leave

Minh, Truc and Ngu are three asylum seekers who arrived in the U.S. last year via the Southern border. Their names have been changed to protect their privacy. All three hail from Nghe An — a poor province in Central Vietnam that has seen significant emigration over the decades.

Some parts of their accounts can’t be verified, but the amounts paid and routes taken are similar to estimates provided by smugglers.

While Vietnam’s economy appears to be doing well, experts have noted the macro trends may be obscuring a more nuanced reality.

Back home in Nghe An, Minh, Truc and Ngu struggled to make ends meet — and saw little possibility for improvement. They spoke of being stuck in menial, poorly paid jobs and of corrupt officials who demand bribes from anyone trying to strike out on their own.

“I was not happy with the way the government treated us in Vietnam. My work was suppressed and could not develop,” said Minh, who had been a small business owner in Nghe An. “I could be OK if I chose to do manual jobs like construction work. But if I had a restaurant they [authorities] would just come to ask for money, and suppress us.”


A florist waters the flowers at a shop in Hanoi on Dec. 5, 2023. Despite a strong economy, some are still struggling and believe there are better opportunities to be had abroad. (Nhac Nguyen/AFP)

Truc, who is just 20, said she had planned to leave the country ever since graduating from high school. She moved to Saigon, hoping to earn enough money to get out, taking on whatever jobs she could get.

“I used to sell fruit juice, do manicures, work as a maid,” she said.

“I always thought about working abroad [in Taiwan or Japan]. Later I heard that since Joe Biden became the president it had become easier to enter the U.S. People passed the rumor, and I just went for it.”

Echoing his girlfriend’s words as they sat alongside one another, Ngu said they braved the odds to come to the U.S. in the hope that their asylum application would be approved and they would be able to stay in the country for good.

“I think if I went to Taiwan, South Korea or Japan, I would not be allowed to stay. But if I come here I could stay and my children could go to school here,” he said.

Minh and Truc both told RFA that they had been seduced by rumors in their hometowns of easy routes into the United States, promises of work and the possibility of staying long term.

It is unclear where these rumors originated and whether they are being fanned by smugglers, but they have coincided with a surge in Vietnamese content on TikTok related to the trip to the Southern border.

Vietnamese-labeled videos abound on the app, sometimes set to inspirational music and showcasing flight routes, jungle paths and hikes along the steep border fence.

Some videos appear to be from smugglers, touting one-stop-shop services and the great money that can be made once in the States. Brokers advertise themselves as helping to “organize tours.” One video that has been viewed about 10,000 times advertises an upcoming trip, promising accommodation and meals. A manicurist, they claim, can earn about $4,700 a month.

“We still have three more seats,” touts the ad, which is set over a photo of the Statue of Liberty and New York City skyline.

Other videos appear to be from migrants and asylum seekers themselves, painting a more complicated picture.

“Status: A long journey with a lot of burden on your shoulders. I hope to stay healthy so my parents at home will be less miserable,” is the caption on a video from March 2023.

In February this year, the same account posted a video of a sunset falling across a suburban parking lot.

“A beautiful evening. But if you still have to worry about food, money and clothing it’s rough.”

Paved with gold

To leave Vietnam invariably means going into debt.

Those crossing the border told RFA their total costs ranged from $60,000 to $75,000. That represents an almost impossible sum for those coming from Nghe An, where the average per capita income was around $140 a month in 2022.

Border crossers must borrow money — from relatives, banks or loan sharks — to pay the brokers, smugglers and traffickers who arrange the lengthy journey.

Accounts from lawyers, asylum seekers and social media show a fairly formalized system. While still in Vietnam, would-be emigres pay $2,000 to $10,000 in advance. These funds go toward the cost of the three or more flights it takes to reach Mexico. It also goes toward the cost of a fake Japanese permanent resident card, which allows Vietnamese people to enter Mexico without a visa.

After passing through Mexican customs, the migrants pay another tranche to the smugglers, with the remaining paid out upon arrival in the U.S.

If the immigration agents in any of the countries they pass through discover their fake documents and refuse entry, they will have to return to Vietnam and lose all the funds they paid to their smugglers.

Truc’s journey began in April 2023, when she and three other women flew from Ho Chi Minh City to Singapore, then to Spain and then Chile.

They expected to then fly to Mexico, but upon arrival in Chile, they were told by their smugglers that they were "stuck" and had to wait an unknown length of time before moving on.

Truc said she was given three options, either to continue waiting in Chile, to make the dangerous overland trip to Mexico, or to return to Vietnam and wait for another crossing opportunity.

Frustrated, Truc scrambled to find another smuggler who could bring her the rest of the way. After seven days, she found someone who would take her.

“The new smugglers bought me a ticket to fly to Brazil then to Mexico. After we arrived in Mexico, we had to pay another $30,000,” she said. The total cost was around $62,000.

Her boyfriend, Ngu, followed about a month later, on a circuitous 16-day journey that cost a total of $65,000.

First, he flew from Da Nang to Thailand to Oman, but when he was denied entry there, he was forced to fly to the Philippines, which also denied him entry. After two days in an airport hotel, he flew back to Ho Chi Minh City, to begin his trip again.

“I flew from Saigon to Turkey and then to Brazil. From Brazil I flew to Mexico and then went to the border between Mexico and the U.S.,” he recounted.

Minh initially arrived on a tourist visa to Canada in early 2023. After the immigration authorities refused him entry, he returned to Vietnam where he waited several months before a smuggler arranged for him to fly to Singapore and Mexico.

It is unclear why they were sent on such circuitous routes, but border crossers said they were told by the smugglers that if they flew directly, they would have little chance of being permitted to enter Mexico. The slow route, the brokers insisted, allowed them to "arrange" entry with customs border agents.

Minh was startled by the level of deception smugglers showed. They promised smooth travels and guaranteed entry, but never mentioned the possibility of being refused entry or explained the dangerous paths that had to be taken to cross the border into the U.S. Having borrowed vast sums of money to pay the smugglers, migrants like Minh said they had little choice but to try for the U.S. again in order to be able to earn enough to pay off their debts.

“Many people got scammed. The smugglers told them to fly from country to country. Each time they fly, they have to pay. The smugglers promised [to get them to the U.S.] and told them to pay and then the migrants still had to return. How could we pay if we could not make it to the U.S.?”Minh said.

The final wait

When Truc and her three fellow travelers at last made it to Mexico, they were taken like Minh to the San Diego border in the middle of the night. The guides pushed a ladder against the border fence and directed the four women up and over. On the other side, they waited. Over the course of the night, hundreds of men, women and children who had come from across the globe joined them.


Vietnamese asylum seekers wait at the San Diego border in December 2023. (Photo: Nick Ut)

Truc’s group waited in a makeshift camp until 6 p.m. the following day, when it was finally their turn to be taken to an immigration detention facility in San Diego.

“Young people like us were told to wait outside for one night and one day. We had to stay in the sun, had nothing to eat, only water.”


Asylum seekers on their way to the U.S.-Mexico border via South America. (Photo: Vietnamese asylum seeker)

Having followed his girlfriend’s tips, Ngu successfully crossed the border about a month later.

“When I got inside the immigration center, there were about 30 to 40 Vietnamese already in. They took our fingerprints and made files for us. Before we left the camp they gave us our files and told us to present at the court of the state where we would live,” he said.

With that, their lives in America had begun. It would be years before they could know whether their new residency would be temporary or permanent.

Ways to stay

Nguyen Hoang Duyen is an immigration lawyer in California who represents a number of Vietnamese immigrants seeking asylum in the United States. He himself arrived in the U.S. as a refugee after the end of the Vietnam War.

While the U.S. was committed to accepting relatively large numbers of Vietnamese refugees in the wake of the war, Nguyen predicted that only a small fraction of those arriving today would see their asylum claims accepted.

“It will be low, except in cases where activists have enough evidence to convince the Immigration Department that they were persecuted. As for the innocent people, they are often uncomfortable, they are threatened; even though they are very scared, they do not meet the standards to be granted asylum,” he explained.

However, the processing time for cases means that an asylum seeker could have as many as nine years of legal residence in the U.S. as their claim works its way through the system. For those desperate for work and economic opportunities, the perceived reward may well outweigh the risk of eventual denial.

A U.S. Border Patrol agent watches as migrants step off a bus in San Diego, California, Oct. 10, 2023. (Frederic J. Brown/AFP)

Today, Truc and Ngu share a home with ten other Vietnamese asylum seekers in Maryland.

Everyone in their house is either a manicurist, cook or construction worker. If the work is no better than what they left behind at home, the pay is much improved.

Truc happily boasted that after only six months of working in the U.S., she has been able to send back nearly $16,000 to start repaying her debts.

Still, despite the economic boost, she said she would never recommend this route to others.

“It costs a lot to go this route, and it all depends on luck,” she said.

Translated by Hanh Seide
Text edited by Boer Deng, Abby Seiff
Graphics by Amanda Weisbrod
Photos edited by Gemunu Amarasinghe
Video edited by Charlie Dharapak
Visual editing by H. Léo Kim, Paul Nelson
Web page produced by Minh-Ha Le
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