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Lawmakers urge Trump administration to expedite visas, refugee status for Uyghurs

U.S. Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo meets with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Prime Minister’s residence in Jerusalem on May 13, 2020. (State Department Photo by Ron Przysucha)
October 27, 2020

This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.

Dozens of lawmakers called on the Trump administration Monday to expedite the visa applications, grant refugee status, and ensure the protection of Uyghurs already in the U.S., noting that the ethnic group faces “heightened risk from persecution” by the Chinese government.

House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on the Middle East, North Africa, and International Terrorism Chairman Ted Deutch and Ranking Member Joe Wilson led a group of 31 Members of Congress in urging U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Acting U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security Chad Wolf to speed up visa applications and consideration of Priority One (P-1) refugee referrals, raise overall refugee limits, and provide protection for U.S.-based Uyghurs.

At the hand of the Chinese government, the Uyghur population is “at risk of coercive population control, forced labor, arbitrary detention in internment camps, torture, physical and sexual abuse, mass surveillance, family separation, and repression of cultural and religious expression around the world,” the bipartisan group of lawmakers wrote in a letter.

The secretaries should “consider the lessons of history when U.S. policymakers failed to do everything in their power to assist refugees and those facing persecution, state oppression, and concentration camps” during the Second World War.

Authorities in northwest China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) are believed to have held up to 1.8 million Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities in a vast network of internment camps since early 2017.

Beginning in October 2018, Beijing acknowledged the existence of the camps, but described them as voluntary “vocational centers,” despite reporting by RFA’s Uyghur Service which has found that detainees are mostly held against their will in poor conditions, where they are forced to endure inhumane treatment and political indoctrination.

Urged to expedite

Monday’s letter noted that the Chinese government is accused of torturing Uyghurs, implementing forced sterilization and forced abortions by Uyghur women, and destroying the culture of the Uyghurs, including by demolishing mosques and compelling denunciations of Islam.

Additionally, it said, the Chinese government has confiscated the passports of most Uyghurs, making it extremely difficult for them to leave China. Beijing also uses extensive surveillance technology to track Uyghurs in China and reportedly to harass and intimidate Uyghurs living outside of the country, it added.

With a backlog of around 3.6 million visa applicants waiting to enter the U.S. and wait times for certain visas at between five and 18 years, and in light of the ongoing state persecution of Uyghurs, the lawmakers urged the secretaries to “consider expedited consideration of applications for both family, educational, and employment-based visas” for members of the ethnic group deemed at-risk.

“We also ask you to consider aggressive use of P-1 status to prioritize refugee referrals for Uyghurs, while encouraging efforts to raise the presidential determination for refugee admittance,” they said.

Under P-1, American diplomats can identify those in need and directly recommend them to U.S. refugee authorities without a referral from the United Nations. Such referrals would benefit Uyghurs located in Southeast Asia, Central Asia, and Turkey who face a heightened risk of Chinese persecution, the lawmakers said.

Lastly, the letter called on the two secretaries to assist Uyghurs already in the U.S. through both Deferred Enforcement Departure (DED) and humanitarian parole to ensure they remain in the country and safe from China.

Implementing greater protections for Uyghurs “would represent a continuation of the best traditions of U.S. foreign policy and humanitarianism and uphold America’s image as a beacon of refuge, hope, and liberty to millions worldwide,” it said.

At the end of July, the Trump administration leveled sanctions against the quasi-military Xinjiang Production and Construction Corp (XPCC) and two of its current and former officials over rights violations in the XUAR, as well as several top Chinese officials, including regional party secretary Chen Quanguo—marking the first time Washington targeted a member of China’s powerful Politburo.

U.S. officials, including Trump and Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden, have also publicly discussed whether the situation in the XUAR merits being labeled genocide.

Nury Turkel, a commissioner on the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), an independent U.S. federal government body, told RFA that if the secretaries act on Monday’s request, it would “open a new pathway for Uyghur asylum seekers in the U.S. who have been waiting since 2015.”

A Uyghur asylum seeker in the U.S., who spoke on condition of anonymity, told RFA they hadn’t received a response from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services since applying for asylum five years ago.

“I was told by my lawyer this is a common situation,” they said. “Besides me, many others I know are waiting as well.”

Call for determination

On Monday, U.S. Senators Marco Rubio, Jeff Merkley, John Cornyn, and Ben Cardin sent a letter to Pompeo renewing their request for the State Department to issue a formal determination of whether the atrocities being committed in the XUAR amount to genocide.

Rubio, cochair of the bipartisan and bicameral Congressional-Executive Commission on China (CECC), and Merkley, a CECC commissioner, cited satellite imagery that shows Beijing is growing its ability to permanently detain ethnic minority populations in the region, with more than 380 camps and prisons built or greatly expanded since 2017.

The senators noted that women in the XUAR are regularly forced to undergo sterilizations and abortions “so the Chinese government can control the family size of ethnic Uyghurs and Kazakhs.”

“Systematic efforts to coercively limit the population of ethnic minority communities is appalling and, along with Beijing’s policies of mass internment and forced labor, likely constitute atrocity crimes under U.S. law,” they wrote.

They applauded sanctions leveled against Chinese officials responsible for policies in the region, but said that more is needed to be done to effect change.

“We renew our request for the Department to issue a public determination of whether atrocity crimes are being committed in the XUAR—and if these crimes amount to genocide,” the letter said.

“Doing so will further focus the Administration’s resources to address and expose offenses in the XUAR and demonstrate U.S. leadership to the international community.”

The senators also called on the State Department to do more to encourage the United Nations to “take meaningful action and to issue a public report on conditions in the XUAR in accordance with measures required under the June enactment of the Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act.

Earlier this year, Rubio and Merkley were joined by Senator Bob Menendez, Representatives James P. McGovern, Christopher Smith and 73 members of the Senate and the House in sending a letter to Pompeo and Secretary of the Treasury Steven Mnuchin regarding the situation in the region.