Opinion

Still missing from Biden's immigration agenda: Asylum for Hong Kongers

They can help us, and we can help them

President Biden began the work of unwinding his predecessor's needlessly cruel immigration policies on his first day in office, and he is continuing that project with three new executive orders Tuesday. One of the three concerns asylum, the special status available to refugees who have arrived at a U.S. border fleeing persecution in their home countries. But it doesn't offer haven to the people of Hong Kong — or the Uighurs, or any other group suffering the abuses of the Chinese government. Why not?

Perhaps it's simply a matter of Tuesday's orders focusing on the U.S.-Mexico border. After all, there's reason to think Biden is receptive to the Hong Kong idea. Secretary of State Antony Blinken pointed in that direction in an interview Monday, though his personal phrasing ("I believe we should") leaves open the possibility that extending an invitation to Hong Kongers is better categorized as Blinken's policy than the president's. However consonant their reported "mind meld," Blinken and Biden have real differences on other issues and could differ here, too.

Biden himself has intimated he'd welcome Hongkongers and Uighurs as refugees, but to my knowledge he's never quite committed. His campaign labeled the Uighurs' treatment "genocide" back in August, half a year before the Trump administration did the same, yet most of Biden's campaign comments on China focused more on trade, digital security, environmental issues, and North Korea.

In a long essay outlining his foreign policy agenda for Foreign Affairs last spring, Biden expressed a desire "to confront China's abusive behaviors and human rights violations" and touted Hong Kong as an exemplar of "the common yearning for honest governance and the universal abhorrence of corruption." Yet he did not explicitly connect the two, nor did he delve into the possibilities (and limits) of a U.S. policy response.

Perhaps the closest Biden has come to promising refuge to Beijing's victims was a statement for World Refugee Day of 2020 in which he pledged to far exceed the Trump administration's stingy refugee admissions caps. "I will work with our allies and partners to stand against China's assault on Hong Kong's freedoms and mass detention and repression of Uighurs and other ethnic minorities," Biden wrote there, "and support a pathway for those persecuted to find safe haven in the United States and other nations."

That suggests Biden would willingly sign legislation like 2020's failed Hong Kong People's Freedom and Choice Act — a bipartisan bill which would have provided temporary protected status to select Hongkongers had Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) not killed it — should it come through Congress again. But it's not an unqualified promise of action. Biden could arguably keep his word merely by condemning Beijing's oppression and endorsing the United Kingdom's program for U.K. passport holders in Hong Kong.

But he should do more. Biden should not only support safe haven for Hongkongers in the United States but actually work toward providing it.

Beijing will undoubtedly cry foul, as it has with the U.K. effort, which London expects to siphon away about 300,000 of Hong Kong's 7.5 million residents over the next half-decade. Top Chinese diplomat Yang Jiechi issued a preemptive warning Monday, saying China hopes for newly constructive engagement with the Biden administration but marking off Hong Kong, Tibet, and Xinjiang (where Uighur concentration camps are located) with a "red line that must not be crossed."

There's a sense in which this is a line Washington should respect. As I argued last summer, when Biden insisted then-President Donald Trump was somehow responsible for Beijing's crackdowns on pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong, the United States' realistic options for controlling the Chinese government's domestic policies are few.

We can and should deplore Beijing's abuses, but China will defend its sovereignty against foreign intervention. We might be able to coerce some shifts with targeted sanctions, but sanctions have a remarkably bad track record, especially where issues the target country deems of core national interest are concerned. (They also often have egregious unintended consequences for innocent civilians.) And war with a fellow nuclear power is obviously inconceivable — U.S. tanks can't roll into Beijing as they rolled into Baghdad.

What's left is haven, which Biden could contend doesn't cross the red line because it primarily concerns U.S. domestic affairs. We can offer refugee status to the peoples China is persecuting. Give them asylum if they make it to our shores. Provide a route to permanent residency, even citizenship.

Hongkongers have a hard-won "appreciation for the value of free expression," as Reason's Liz Wolfe writes. "They'd be wonderful new Americans for that reason alone," and many meet more conventional U.S. immigration criteria, too: They're "highly educated and entrepreneurial; they could breathe fresh air into U.S. regions and towns that need to be reinvigorated." They can help us, and we can help them. We should.

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