Beijing’s new national security law went into effect last night, after more than a year of massive protests against the erosion of Hong Kong’s autonomy. Though details are still unclear, the legislation will allow China to crack down on dissent in Hong Kong. As Beijing threatens the autonomy, rights, and freedoms supposed to be guaranteed to Hong Kong under the Sino-British Joint Declaration of 1997, a bipartisan group of representatives has introduced the Hong Kong Safe Harbor Act to make refugee resettlement available for those who want it. 

Introduced by Rep. Curtis (UT-3) in the House and by Sen. Rubio (FL) in the Senate, the Hong Kong Safe Harbor Act designates Hong Kong permanent residents as Priority 2 refugees, streamlines the resettlement process for Hongkongers, and coordinates with allies to ensure that Hongkongers fleeing persecution can be resettled safely. As political parties are already being disbanded in response to the national security legislation, the Hong Kong Safe Harbor Act offers a lifeboat.

The Hong Kong Safe Harbor Act

The Hong Kong Safe Harbor Act contains several key provisions to facilitate the resettlement of Hong Kong refugees. First, it designates certain residents of Hong Kong with Priority 2 refugee status. Priority 2 status is one of three admission priorities, and covers groups “of special humanitarian concern to the United States.” Priority 2 status allows people to access the U.S. Refugee resettlement program without being referred by UNHCR or a similar organization, which is required under Priority 1 processing. Priority 1 processing would not be feasible in Hong Kong, as it doesn’t have a UNHCR presence. 

Second, and perhaps most importantly, the Hong Kong Safe Harbor Act would exempt Hong Kong refugees from the numerical limitation. This ensures that Hongkongers seeking resettlement under the bill are not competing in effect with other refugees for all-too-scarce slots. Rather than pitting refugees against one another, the bill ensures that Hongkongers can come to the United States in addition to what is outlined in presidential determinations.

Third, the bill thoughtfully waives certain Hongkongers—protest organizers, arrested protestors, lawyers representing arrested protestors, civil society leaders, protest first responders, and journalists harmed while covering the protests—from the presumption on immigrant intent. This waiver makes it easier for them to travel to the United States to declare asylum. While these particular Hongkongers would also be eligible under the bill for refugee processing, they are at greater risk of extradition to the mainland. For them, the slower and more cumbersome refugee process may therefore not be as safe as seeking a visa and declaring asylum. The bill also  ensures that refugee processing may occur even if an applicant has left Hong Kong. And it also protects against authorities revoking the residency of Hongkongers in response to them applying for refugee status or asylum by ensuring that such people are eligible under the bill. 

Fourth, the bill calls on our allies to adopt similar programs. 

Altogether, the bill is suitably designed to offer a lifeboat from authoritarianism and to make sure that people who choose to leave can do so quickly.

Hongkongers: A Source of Strength

While  the Chinese Communist Party’s actions against the free institutions of Hong Kong are deplorable, Hong Kong refugees will undoubtedly strengthen the countries and communities where they relocate. The U.K. has already offered citizenship to a large subset of Hongkongers who want to leave. Australia has also expressed their openness to those fleeing. The United States should be among them. Of course, some Hongkongers who wish to leave may prefer to relocate to the U.K. or Australia. Many have connections to those countries in particular through friends, family, business, etc. But the U.K. and Australia’s programs don’t offer protection for all Hongkongers, and some who would be eligible under those programs may nevertheless prefer the unique opportunities afforded by the United States. All the better for us.

Resettling refugees from Hong Kong would strengthen the United States culturally, politically, economically, and strategically. Culturally and politically, Hongkongers would bring new ideas and unique perspectives, while reinvigorating our belief in the many values of the open society that we share. Economically, Hongkongers would bring high educational attainment, widespread English proficiency, an entrepreneurial spirit, and capital. Strategically, resettling refugees from Hong Kong would highlight the human rights record of the Chinese Communist Party, bring the distinction between authoritarianism and open societies into relief, and credibly affirm the United States’ commitment to the latter. When President Eisenhower signed the 1953 Refugee Relief Act, he remarked that resettling refugees “demonstrates again America’s traditional concern for the…persecuted…[in] a dramatic contrast to the tragic events taking place in East Germany and in other captive nations.” The particular circumstances and details may have passed into history, but the opportunity to draw the same dramatic contrast regrettably endures.

Beijing’s impositions on Hong Kong are a major setback in the fight for freedom. But the aspirations of that fight need not be snuffed out entirely. The Hong Kong Safe Harbor Act would keep the torch alight.

Photo credit: Studio Incendo under CC by 2.0