Restricting immigration to the United States was perhaps the defining policy agenda of Donald Trump’s administration. Beyond promising to limit undocumented migration, the former president enacted sweeping cuts to legal immigration, including humanitarian admissions programs. From detaining and expelling asylum seekers at the border, to dramatically reducing the number of refugees admitted through the resettlement program, the Trump administration’s actions called into question the U.S.’ commitment to protecting the persecuted.
Now, President Biden faces the difficult task of reestablishing the nation’s historic reputation as a leader in refugee protection; rebuilding fractured partnerships; and restoring a broad, bipartisan consensus on the vital importance of humanitarian admissions. To tackle these issues, there is perhaps no better place to start than by responding to severe human rights abuses in a pair of East Asian states — Myanmar and China.
Robust admissions programs for refugees from Myanmar and China promise to bolster U.S. leadership in the Asia-Pacific region; stand up to human rights abusers; repair the international image of the United States; and promote much-needed bipartisanship on Capitol Hill. Most importantly, doing so will save lives while defending religious liberty and democratic values.
Begin with Myanmar: Over one million Rohingya Muslims have been displaced by a systematic campaign of targeted ethnic violence and genocide in Rakhine state. Since the latest round of violence began in 2017, over 740,000 people have fled across the border into neighboring Bangladesh, where they live in precarious conditions. Recently, a deadly fire broke out in a Rohingya refugee camp in Bangladesh, killing 15 and displacing thousands — underscoring the continued vulnerability of this population. In addition to the mass exodus of the Rohingya, the military in Myanmar has cracked down on pro-democracy activists following a coup on February 1.
Courageous protests against the military regime have led to violent repression, killing hundreds. As human rights conditions continue to deteriorate, many activists and human rights defenders have been forced to flee the country in search of protection.
China, Myanmar’s far more populous neighbor to the north, is experiencing a similar pair of crises: a violent campaign against a minority population and the harsh repression of pro-democracy activists. Systematic killings, internment, sexual violence, and forced labor are among the many documented abuses against Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang province, leading former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to label it a genocide.
At the same time, the steady erosion of democracy in Hong Kong and the continuing cycles of protest and repression accompanying it have prompted some to seek asylum elsewhere, including the United States. As the Chinese Communist Party continues to roll back the freedoms once enjoyed by Hong Kongers, many fear harsh government reprisals and the emergence of a police state.
A bipartisan group of members of Congress has already crafted legislation to address Uighur and Hong Kong refugees. Similar legislation or executive action to prioritize refugees from Myanmar and address the long-standing Rohingya refugee crisis would similarly affirm the U.S.’ commitment to human rights in the region.
A multifaceted and multinational approach is needed to address these complex issues, including diplomatic efforts; humanitarian assistance to refugees in neighboring countries; strengthening international refugee protection institutions; and, of course, allowing refugees and asylum seekers access to the United States.
While the humanitarian needs of vulnerable populations should always be paramount, actions to address forced migration in East Asia will provide tangible benefits to the United States as well.
First, the growing geostrategic importance of the Asia-Pacific region and the challenges posed by a more assertive Chinese foreign policy deserve a multipronged response. U.S. humanitarian leadership can help to foster closer relationships with other countries in the region and counterbalance Chinese influence.
Second, the Uighurs and the Rohingya are both Muslim minorities experiencing severe human rights abuses. Under the Trump administration — which enacted policies such as the so-called “Muslim Ban” — relations with Muslim nations have been strained, and the image of the U.S. among the global Islamic community has suffered. Protecting these religious minorities and working with Muslim nations such as Bangladesh will strengthen American public diplomacy.
Finally, humanitarian migration programs reaffirm the historic commitment of the United States to protecting fundamental human rights and religious freedom. Accepting refugees from Myanmar and China would send a strong signal across East Asia, and to the international community more generally, that life in the U.S. is preferable to living under these brutal autocracies.
Beyond military might and economic influence, the power of American ideals — including welcoming refugees — is what will ultimately maintain U.S. leadership in the 21st century.
Idean Salehyan is a Professor of Political Science at the University of North Texas and a Senior Fellow at the Niskanen Center.