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A Bipartisan Effort to Aid the Uyghurs
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A Bipartisan Effort to Aid the Uyghurs

Plus: Senate Democrats plan a larger China measure.

Good morning. President Joe Biden signed Democrats’ nearly $2 trillion coronavirus stimulus bill into law yesterday. Democrats are planning their next big legislative priority, which is expected to be a massive infrastructure package. In the meantime, members of Congress are working on policies that could pass with bipartisan support. Few topics bring the two parties together like human rights in China and the need to push back on the Chinese government on the world stage. Today’s Uphill focuses on the latest in these conversations.

Lawmakers Introduce Bipartisan Uyghur Refugee Bill

A group of representatives introduced legislation this week to make it easier for Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities who are facing persecution in China’s Xinjiang region to apply to the U.S. government for asylum. 

Sponsored by Reps. Ted Deutch, Mario Diaz-Balart, Jennifer Wexton, and Chris Smith, the bill would grant a special refugee status to Uyghurs and others who have been targeted by the Chinese government in its brutal efforts to stamp out Uyghur culture and identity. 

Up to 3 million Uyghurs, ethnic Kazakhs, Krygyz, and other Muslim minorities have been forcibly detained in concentration camps in Xinjiang in recent years. Some who have made it out of the camps have described horrifying conditions, including frequent rapes of the prisoners by guards and other forms of violence. The Chinese government’s campaign against Muslim minorities in Xinjiang has also involved forced sterilizations and forced abortions in an effort to slash birth rates. Many Uyghurs who have been detained have also been victims of a sprawling forced labor system. The U.S. State Department officially labeled the atrocities a genocide last year.

“These egregious violations by the Chinese government are offensive to both American and universal values of human rights,” Deutch, a Florida Democrat, said when announcing the legislation. “In the United States, we have a proud history of welcoming oppressed peoples from around the world. This bill is a continuation of the best traditions of U.S. foreign policy and humanitarianism and upholds America’s image as a beacon of hope, refuge, and liberty to millions worldwide.”

The legislation extends “Priority 2” or P-2 status to individuals who are residents of or have fled Xinjiang who “suffered persecution or have a well-founded fear of persecution” on account of their peaceful expression of political opinions, religious or cultural beliefs, or participation in related activities. It also includes affected minorities who are residing in other parts of China and those who fled to other countries on account of those concerns but have not been firmly resettled yet. Spouses, children, and parents of such refugees are included as well, except if their parents are already citizens of a country other than China.

Priority 2 status designates a group “of special humanitarian concern,” and it allows refugees to apply directly to the U.S. government for help rather than going through other channels for asylum-seekers like the United Nations or an embassy. 

Omer Kanat, the executive director of the Uyghur Human Rights Project, told Reuters earlier this week that the designation would help Uyghur refugees who have been wary of applying through international entities. If they apply through the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, he said, “it has to inform the government of the state that they are in, and if they have strong relations with China, they fear these governments will inform the Chinese authorities.”

Fears that the Chinese government is pressuring other countries to give up Uyghur refugees are very real: Uyghurs who fled to Turkey have been inexplicably arrested and sent to deportation centers, and others in Thailand have been extrajudicially imprisoned.

The provisions in Deutch’s bill would expire 10 years after enactment. The measure also includes a statement of U.S. policy encouraging allies and partner countries to make similar asylum accommodations for Xinjiang residents who are fleeing oppression by the Chinese government. (For those who would like to read the whole bill, text obtained by The Dispatch is available here.)

The refugee program as we know it today was established by the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1980. The bill, according to the Congressional Research Service, was intended to formalize the United States’ approach to refugee admissions. 

Former President Donald Trump drastically cut refugee admissions during his time in office, breaking records each year for setting the lowest ceiling in the 40-year history of the refugee admissions program. In fiscal year 2018, Trump set the maximum at 45,000 refugees, followed by a limit of 30,000 in fiscal year 2019. Trump set the ceiling at 18,000 refugees in fiscal year 2020, but only 11,814 were admitted after operations were disrupted by the coronavirus pandemic. 

The president has the authority to make the determination of how many refugees can be allowed into the country in a given year after consultation with Congress. Trump’s administration cited national security concerns and a need to deal with the backlog of separate visa applications as his rationale for cutting the program’s limits so severely. 

Before he left office, Trump set the fiscal year 2021 ceiling at 15,000 refugees. President Joe Biden moved to revise that soon after his inauguration, informing Congress he plans to increase the cap for the remainder of the fiscal year at 62,500 spots instead. In fiscal year 2022, which begins in October, Biden is further expected to set the ceiling at 125,000 refugees. 

Lawmakers and policy experts from across the ideological spectrum have pointed to the refugee program as an effective way to help Uyghurs and others who have been persecuted by the Chinese government. 

Olivia Enos, a senior policy analyst for the Asian Studies Center at the conservative Heritage Foundation, argued alongside Refugees International Vice President Hardin Lang last month that the “most tangible thing the U.S. government can do to support Uyghurs is to fully use its refugee admissions program.”

Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, a Florida Republican who cosponsored Deutch’s bill, noted that the Chinese government “poses a grave threat to the world in a variety of ways such as IP theft, endangering public health, and bullying its neighbors.”

But, he said, “we must also remember the harm China’s Politburo has perpetrated, and continues to inflict, on the people of China as well. This important legislation will provide an avenue for some of the world’s most persecuted individuals to escape their abusers.”

Senate Democrats Look Toward Larger China Measure

When he ran for president, Joe Biden campaigned on restoring bipartisanship, pledging to work across the aisle in a Congress that has had its fair share of gridlock over the past decade. There aren’t many big topics where that comes naturally to the two parties at this point. But one priority—countering the Chinese government economically and pushing back on its egregious human rights abuses—still regularly brings Republicans and Democrats together. 

While Democrats are planning how to advance their next reconciliation measure, which, like their sweeping coronavirus aid bill, could spark fierce partisan battles and pass without any Republican support, members from both parties are also working behind the scenes on an ambitious package of bills aimed at China. The effort could become Biden’s first big bipartisan accomplishment—although Republicans and Democrats will have to work through existing differences about how best to approach the legislation.

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Menendez told reporters earlier this week that he’s hoping for floor consideration of a broad China measure as soon as April. He is working alongside committee ranking member Sen. Jim Risch’s office to sort out the details, he added.

“Probably the single most challenging national security and national interest question before the United States is China,” Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat, said. 

“We have to compete with China, and that means investments at home as well as engaging with alliances abroad. We are far stronger when we add the United States, Canada, the European Union, Japan, South Korea, Australia, and you bring the economies of all those countries together in terms of challenging China on the global stage.”

The package could send hundreds of billions of dollars in support for critical science and technology research and development. That may include funding for American manufacturing and other industries lawmakers believe need to become more competitive to counter China’s rise. Menendez pointed to quantum computing, artificial intelligence, and robotics, among other areas the legislation could address.

“It’s about investing in our values, and it’s about investing in economic statecraft and ensuring that China pays the price for predatory actions,” Menendez told reporters.

Beyond economic competition, lawmakers are hoping that their human rights priorities related to China can hitch a ride on the package. The legislation could ultimately contain something like Rep. Ted Deutch’s bill to give Uyghurs and other persecuted Muslim minorities refugee prioritization, as well as an expedited visa process for Hong Kong residents. It could also include a form of another widely supported bill, the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act.

The forced labor bill aims to rid supply chains of products made with coerced labor in Xinjiang. It would place the burden on companies to ensure their products are made without any connection to forced labor, rather than relying only on Customs and Border Protection agents to monitor and investigate violations. 

Florida Sen. Marco Rubio reintroduced the measure earlier this year alongside nearly 30 senators. His office told The Dispatch this week that the bill is part of conversations surrounding the China package.

The House passed its own version of the legislation last year, with an overwhelming vote of 406-3. It languished in the Senate, though, as several large corporations lobbied to water down some of its provisions. Rubio’s latest version of the bill harmonized some of the differences between the original House and Senate versions. It also included a change that would give businesses more time to contest a CBP determination that their supply chains are tainted.

Massachusetts Rep. Jim McGovern, who has led the effort in the House, reintroduced his version of the bill last month. 

“We have watched in horror as the Chinese government first created, and then expanded a system of extrajudicial mass internment camps targeting Uyghurs and Muslim minorities. We now know the entire XUAR [Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region] economy is built upon a foundation of forced labor and repression,” McGovern said. “Many U.S., international, and Chinese corporations are complicit in the exploitation of forced labor and these products continue to make their way into global supply chains and our country. It is long past time for the Congress to act.”

Of Note

Haley Wilt is a former associate editor for The Dispatch.