Rising wealth in China may be having one unexpected effect in the U.S. -- a drop in asylum petitions from Chinese nationals. For years, Chinese immigrants have made up the largest pool of people seeking and receiving asylum in the United States. But the number of Chinese asylum seekers has declined dramatically in recent years, and analysts say China’s rising standards of living are contributing to the trend.

According to Justice Department statistics released this week, immigration courts saw 4,773 asylum petitions from Chinese nationals in 2014. That’s roughly a 50 percent drop from 2012, which saw 9,833 asylum petitions in court from Chinese immigrants.

It doesn’t mean fewer Chinese people are getting asylum, however. Over the past decade, Chinese nationals have accounted for roughly a third of all approved asylum requests in the United States, and asylees from China have consistently outnumbered those from all other countries since the late 1990s. That hasn’t changed. “The approval rate is very high,” said Muzaffar Chishti, director of the Migration Policy Institute’s office at New York University’s School of Law. But that makes the recent decline in asylum petitions all the more stark.

Chinese immigrants frequently petition for asylum based on religious or political persecution, citing Beijing’s crackdowns on political dissidents and groups like the Falun Gong. Chinese asylum claims in the U.S. also jumped after 1996, when Washington passed an amendment expanding asylum specifically to people facing forced sterilizations or abortion as a result of China’s one-child policy. The protection covered pregnant women at risk as well as their children and spouses.

But analysts say Chinese nationals’ asylum claims are also deeply tied to illegal immigration flows. “The reason many [Chinese] people apply for asylum is because they were here illegally and tried to stay,” said Peter Kwong, a professor of urban affairs at Hunter College in New York City and a scholar on Chinese immigration.

But the drop in the number of asylum petitions, coupled with high asylum approval rates, suggests that less credible asylum claims may be staying out of the system. That may be tied to shifting patterns in illegal immigration from China in general, analysts say.

Rising standards of living in China may have reduced some of the incentives to migrate illegally to the U.S., particularly for low-skilled workers who have relied on smuggling networks to get into the country. “The economy is getting a little bit better, and the economic disparity, particularly in bigger [immigration] sending areas like Fuzhou and Wenzhou in South China, has declined,” Kwong said. “My speculation is that the core class of Chinese immigrants who usually are the ones looking to immigrate illegally, those numbers are down.”

Chishti said the cost of migrating to the U.S. has become less attractive as a result. “When you compare the standard of living for a low-skilled Chinese person [in China] with how they would do in the U.S., the gap has now narrowed considerably,” he said. “To make a decent living in the U.S., where you can afford a house and education for your kids, is much more out of reach now than it is to get a similar situation in China.”

Notably, China also relaxed its one-child policy in 2013, allowing couples to have a second child if one of the parents is an only child. That added flexibility, coupled with China’s rising living standards, has lifted some pressure from Chinese families. “But that itself would not be enough without economic prosperity,” Chishti said.

And while asylum may have offered some a last-ditch pathway to permanent residence in the U.S., recent changes to visa laws have opened up other avenues for Chinese immigrants. “In the past, if you came in illegally and you wanted to stay, there were very few ways that you could do it,” Kwong said. “But in the last five to six years, for Chinese coming to the United States, getting a visa to the U.S. has been much easier to get than previously.”

Those changes have made it easier for Chinese nationals to take short-term stints in the U.S. and return again, rather than being tempted to overstay a single-visit visa, Kwong said. In the meantime, the number of nonimmigrant visas issued to Chinese nationals has exploded over the past decade. In 2005, the U.S. State Department issued 325,955 visas to people from mainland China. By 2013, that number swelled to 1,467,558. 

In many cases, getting a temporary visa is a much more palatable option than asylum, which often puts people in legal limbo, said Margaret Wong, an immigration attorney who has worked extensively with Chinese communities. Delays and backlogs in the court system stretch out the waiting period, and it’s not clear if immigrants’ claims will be accepted or denied. “They spend all this time not knowing if they will get a green card,” she said.

This temporary type of migration is set to continue after the U.S. State Department announced in November it would begin issuing 10-year multiple-entry visas for business and tourist travel from China, and five-year visas for Chinese students. “When Chinese people heard that, they were like, “Why do I need to file for asylum?’” Wong said.

Much of the recent drop can be traced to New York: In 2012, New York saw around 7,000 asylum applications from Chinese nationals. That figure fell to 4,300 in 2013, the New York Times reported.

Chishti pointed to a major crackdown on asylum fraud in New York in 2012 as another potential reason for the decline. In that operation, named “Operation Fiction Writer,” U.S. investigators charged 26 people -- lawyers, paralegals, church officials and others -- with allegedly fabricating asylum claims for Chinese immigrants. “That considerably shook up the system, which had been responsible for producing a lot of mass-produced asylum applications,” Chishti said.

But Kwong was skeptical that the fraud crackdown was behind the drop, saying it wouldn’t likely have affected the scores of other legal service providers helping put together asylum claims. “It’s like if you crack down on a gambling joint or prostitution joint -- there are hundreds more,” he said. But because New York has been the primary destination for recent working-class Chinese immigrants, any changes in immigration patterns would be most apparent there, he said.