July 2, 2020 1:49PM

Hong Kong Safe Harbor Act Offers Escape to Persecuted Hong Kongers

A bipartisan group of senators and congressmen have introduced new legislation to facilitate the protection of persecuted residents of Hong Kong. The bill responds to China’s new “national security” law that allows mainland China’s national security agencies to operate in Hong Kong and target proponents of Hong Kong independence with up to life in prison. This is similar to what my colleagues at the Cato Institute have recommended.

The Hong Kong Safe Harbor Act would directly support protesters by telling them that they can risk their lives in Hong Kong knowing that they have a backup plan in case they are targeted. The Chinese party is already clearly concerned about this type of offer, denouncing the United Kingdom’s similar proposal to allow up to 3 million Hong Kongers to enter and work in the UK and claim UK citizenship.

This proposal would also benefit the United States by providing it with talented new Americans committed to freedom and democracy (a commitment too few U.S.-born Americans share). The program would support U.S. diplomatic efforts to defend democracy and freedom in Hong Kong, and it would embolden freedom fighters the world over.

Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Bob Menendez (D-NJ) in the Senate and Rep. John Curtis (R-UT) and Joaquin Castro (D-TX) in the House are leading the effort with more than a dozen other bipartisan cosponsors. They introduced the bill on Tuesday, and the sponsors stated that they were introducing the bill to show support Hong Kongers and hopefully provide them a backup plan if their resistance continues to fail.

The main provisions of the bill force the Trump administration to designate residents of Hong Kong victims of persecution as Priority 2 refugees, allowing them to apply directly to the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program, and not count them against the president’s refugee cap. It would extend the offer to their spouses, minor children, and Chinese parents.

Under prior administrations, the United States accepted refugees usually through U.S. embassy or United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) referrals (Priority 1). Priority 2 allows specific groups of refugees to apply directly to the U.S. government without needing an individual referral. It was generally applied to refugees where UNHCR involvement or referral could not be expected, as in the case of Hong Kong.

Any of the 7.5 million Hong Kong residents could qualify if they (or their parents, spouses, or children) demonstrated a “well‐​founded fear of persecution on account of their peaceful expression of political opinion or peaceful participation in political activities or associations.”

The administration would have to establish the technical procedures for Priority 2 applications, which the government has done in several different ways in the past. The administration needs to be very careful because, as the UK has noted, there’s no way to prevent China from stopping someone trying to flee.

Section 207 of the Immigration and Nationality Act grants the president discretion to make all these determinations. But he has almost completely ended the U.S. refugee program. In 2020, he announced the lowest refugee limit in the 40‐​year history of the program, and the 18,000 slots made available were entirely reserved for certain specific groups of refugees—about 40 percent for those approved the year before. There were no slots made available for political refugees such as those from Hong Kong.

The administration has even drastically reduced refugee inflows even for refugees that it claims to support, such as Christians. If the legislation begins to move, however, the president could feel pressure to act. The administration’s most likely choice would be to use some of the existing slots for a few refugees from Hong Kong. The bill foresees and rejects this alternative. It is important that the United States not displace the few refugees still able to access to the program—including many who worked for the U.S. government—or limit the number of Hong Kong residents who can escape. Doing so would completely undermine the purpose of the legislation, which is to guarantee escape to anyone facing the real threat of persecution. 

Ideally, anyone from Hong Kong should be able to get on a plane and fly to the United States using their passports tomorrow, just as anyone from a Visa Waiver Program country can. But this is the next‐​best option. The Hong Kong Safe Harbor Act would create an escape hatch for Hong Kongers fighting oppression—which is great news for freedom.