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Explained: A US Senator blocked a Bill that would give Hong Kongers refugee status. What this means

The legislation would have also allowed Hong Kong residents already residing in the US to remain in the country if they feared political persecution and harassment by government authorities in Hong Kong.

By: Explained Desk | Kolkata |
Updated: December 23, 2020 12:26:27 pm
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) leaves a Republican Senate luncheon on Capitol Hill in Washington on Oct. 20, 2020. (The New York Times: Anna Moneymaker, File)

The passage of a bill that would have given Hong Kong citizens special refugee status in the US was blocked on Friday following objections from Republican Senator Ted Cruz. The bill, called the Hong Kong People’s Freedom and Choice Act, would have allowed Hong Kong citizens to reside and work in the US as part of a federal programme reserved for individuals from war-torn countries or those who are seeking refuge from natural disaster or other difficult circumstances.

What is this bill about?

A press release issued earlier this month by Democrat lawmaker Tom Malinowski, one of the bill’s backers, said the legislation sought “to protect Hong Kongers facing persecution under the Chinese government’s tightening grip” by permitting Hong Kong residents “targeted for exercising their democratic freedoms” to seek refugee status in the US.

The legislation would have also allowed Hong Kong residents already residing in the US to remain in the country if they feared political persecution and harassment by government authorities in Hong Kong. It would have granted Hong Kong residents ‘Temporary Protected Status’ in the US.

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Why was it blocked?

In an attempt to justify the last-minute blocking of the legislation, Cruz had said that Democrats were using this bill “to advance their long-standing goals on changing (US) immigration laws”. Cruz had also claimed that China would be using this legislation to exploit US immigration laws and to recruit spies working in the interest of China.

Cruz had insisted that the legislation was a part of a purported larger immigration agenda by the Democrats who were pushing for relaxed immigration rules. Immigration has been a point of contention for years between the two political parties in the US and under the Trump administration, immigration laws have become even more harsh.

Was this anticipated?

While Cruz’s stance on immigration is known, this particular bill had been sponsored by both Democrats and Republicans and had moved through consensus in the US House of Representatives, so his objections may have been unexpected. China and Hong Kong are a few issues that lawmakers from both political parties in Washington find themselves agreeing upon and observers have noticed increasing bipartisan unity on these specific issues.

This bill was among the several moves that Washington D.C. was making against what it perceived as Beijing’s increasing control and violation of human rights, particularly in the case of Hong Kong. Cruz himself has called for more pressure on Beijing and had expressed solidarity with pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong in the past.

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What happens now?

With Cruz’s objection, the passage of the bill is now unlikely in the US Senate. Lawmakers will also be going on break for the winter and work will resume in January next year. This bill would have to be reintroduced and the process will have to be repeated.

The blocking of the bill has led to disappointment among many pro-democracy activists. Samuel Chu, founder of the US-based Hong Kong Democracy Council, a non-profit, said: “Hong Kongers need every protection/support the US can provide right now and for US to lead the global coordinated campaign to give safe harbor to activists. We want to tell Sen Cruz – one needs not to pick between preventing CCP censorship or saving activists from life in prison.”

Other Hong Kong activists took to social media platforms to share how the blocking of this bill would impact them and others back in Hong Kong seeking refuge in western countries. Over the past few months, several pro-democracy activists have been arrested or forced to flee Hong Kong because of China’s suppression of the movement.

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