Uyghurs face long wait to become U.S. citizens

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May 18, 2023 | The China Project | By Ruth Ingram

Despite vocal U.S. government support for the oppressed Uyghur people of Northwest China, Washington is dragging its heels when it comes to asylum seekers asking for a permanent home, a report from the Uyghur Human Rights Project (UHRP) published in April shows.

There are up to 1,000 Uyghurs and other Turkic-speaking minorities from China currently in the U.S. seeking asylum, according to UHRP Director of Research Henryk Szadziewski. His report, “No Time to Lose, Uyghurs Stuck in the United States Asylum System,” details distress and trauma experienced by many Uyghurs fleeing well-documented atrocities in their homeland as they await word on whether they can stay in America.

The UHRP report recommends Congress act to expedite and finance the asylum-seeking process for people who are victims and survivors of genocide. The report calls for U.S. government departments, particularly the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), to be adequately funded, and recommends that the U.S. Task Force on Atrocity Prevention, created under the Elie Wiesel Genocide and Atrocities Prevention Act of 2018, focus on clearing the backlog of asylum cases.

The UHRP is a private advocacy organization founded in 2004 with a grant from the National Endowment for Democracy, which, in turn, was founded in 1983 with a grant from the U.S. Congress. UHRP continues to raise money from private donors.

Speaking to The China Project, Szadziewski complained that despite two successive U.S. administrations acknowledging the severity of the atrocities committed against the Uyghur people, “there are still obstacles hindering the process of granting asylum to all Uyghurs residing in the country.”

U.S. policy on the Uyghurs already in America is fraught with contradiction, UHRP Director Omer Kanat told The China Project, explaining that while Washington was the first government to declare that China was committing genocide against their people, U.S. lawmakers and bureaucracy then offered only a lukewarm reception to those fleeing that very crisis.

Despite stern warnings to Beijing from the dedicated, bipartisan Congressional-Executive Commission on China and a host of welcome U.S. government measures drawing attention to the Uyghur crisis — the declaration of genocide, the Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act, the Uyghur Human Rights Sanctions Review Act, and the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act, to name a few — Kanat said many Uyghur asylum seekers are still waiting up to nine years for an interview.

Uyghurs are trapped in America, not willing or able to go back to their homeland but, lacking official U.S. immigration status, are unable to get on with their lives in exile, Kanat said. One year, renewable work permits limit their choice of employment, and they are not eligible for federal benefits until they are granted asylum. Beijing’s relentless pursuit of Uyghurs wherever they are in the world compounds the stress of a people already traumatized by reports of the grim situation their families face back home.

“Even if they make it [to the U.S.], they cannot see an end to their waiting and are terrified China will catch up with them and send them back,” said Kanat, whose best efforts to raise the urgent plight of his people to U.S. officials have so far fallen on deaf ears. The six-month wait for an asylum interview promised under a 2022 Biden administration reform to speed up the process has been thwarted by backlogs.

“The number of Uyghur asylum seekers in the United States is not so large. A quick resolution of these cases is within reach,” Kanat said. “They seem in no hurry to expedite the process for these vulnerable people.”

The Uyghur refugees in the U.S. are not looking for handouts, the UHRP report said, noting that most tend to have completed a higher education and were professionals in their former lives in China. Under the Trump administration, Uyghurs were forbidden to work in the U.S. for one year after arrival. Biden reversed this work ban, but expensive and often-delayed work permits can mean Uyghur job losses, precarious living conditions, and even homelessness.

Despite paying their U.S. state and federal taxes, the UHRP report shows that Uyghurs seeking further education in America are denied student loans and the benefit of paying domestic tuition rates for university until they are bona fide U.S. citizens.

The UHRP report notes that leaving China was not an easy choice and each Uyghur who did it had something to lose, “whether it was family members, professional employment, or financial assets.”

“These are not people who have taken this journey lightly,” Kanat said. “They need to know they are welcomed and safe in the U.S.”

Alimjan, a Uyghur asylum seeker in his fifth year of waiting in the U.S. at the time of the UHRP report, described the U.S. system as “broken.”

“We deserve to get on with our lives,” he told Szadziewski.

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