The U.S. Immigration System Needs To Do More To Help Uyghurs

“The world has known for years now that Uyghurs, members of a Turkic ethnic group who number about 13.5 million and mostly live in China, are experiencing persecution by the Chinese government. A number of international observers and human rights advocates argue the Chinese government is attempting genocide, but Uyghurs looking for an escape from China’s brutality have had a difficult time securing relief through America’s refugee and asylum pathways, and their immigration struggles are shared by far too many vulnerable people seeking an escape to the United States.

Under U.S. immigration law, asylum seekers are people who are already present on American soil or at a port of entry and apply for the right to remain in the country. Refugees, on the other hand, apply for resettlement in the U.S. from abroad. Approval to stay in the U.S. under either category requires that applicants prove they have been “persecuted or fear persecution due to race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group.” The two pathways are intended to help the world’s most vulnerable people escape danger.

In the past two fiscal years, however, the U.S. has admitted zero Uyghur refugees. Many Uyghurs who have been lucky enough to reach the U.S. through other pathways, like student and travel visas, also face an uncertain future—as Caroline Simon reported for Roll Call yesterday, there are “roughly 800 Uyghurs caught in the backlog of hundreds of thousands seeking asylum in the U.S.” Until they receive asylum, they can’t apply to sponsor stranded family members.

It’s undeniable that Uyghurs broadly fall into the categories outlined for refugees and asylum seekers. In the name of cultural erasure, they’ve been subject to mass sterilizationkept from speaking the Uyghur language, and forced to pledge loyalty to the Chinese Communist Party. Adrian Zenz, senior fellow in China studies at the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation, told NPR that China’s treatment of Uyghurs is “probably the largest incarceration of an ethnoreligious minority since the Holocaust.””

“The plight of the Uyghurs waiting on immigration answers points to broader issues in America’s refugee and asylum infrastructure. For one, the U.S. has been taking in astonishingly low numbers of refugees lately, hitting a record low of 11,411 in fiscal year 2021. Over 667,000 asylum seekers are waiting for their cases to be resolved, and they face an average wait time of around 1,600 days, or 54 months. There’s also the issue of the “last-in, first-out” policy, under which asylum applicants who have arrived in the U.S. more recently are processed first. This means many people who have been present in the U.S. for years cannot petition for visas for family members, which propagates what the Center for Migration Studies of New York calls “the ‘other family separation’ crisis.””

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *