China’s Muslim Uighurs Are Stuck in U.S. Immigration Limbo

Yet another consequence of Trump administration immigration policies and practices:

Kalbinur Awut came to the U.S. in 2015 from China’s far west for graduate study. Soon after arriving at the University of Rhode Island, she applied for political asylum. A member of the mostly Muslim Uighur minority, she had been harassed in China for wearing headscarves and was briefly detained after she applied to study overseas.

When she signed into a website run by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services this month to check her status, the same old message greeted her, with her wait time the only update: “Your case has been pending with USCIS for 1,796 days, not including delays,” it said.

China’s treatment of Uighurs exploded into the American consciousness around two years ago with reports that China was rounding up around a million Uighurs in what appeared to be concentration camps in the western region of Xinjiang.

Roughly around the same time, changes in U.S. asylum policies slowed the process for many of those claiming risk in their home countries. As a result, while the Trump administration is targeting China with various Xinjiang-related sanctions, hundreds of Uighurs like Ms. Awut are in U.S. immigration limbo with asylum bids hung up for years.

Applicants say that they are grateful the U.S. lets them work while awaiting a decision, but that their options are limited as prospective employers or landlords can be wary about their legal status. Lawyer charges and fees to renew work permits and temporary legal documents like driver’s licenses are a constant worry. Their quasi-legal status also leaves them at risk of deportation.

USCIS said its backlog for those seeking asylum, which provides a path to permanent residence and citizenship, was about 340,000 as of last September, the latest figures available, which equates to several years worth of cases. A few hundred Uighurs are in that queue, among Syrians fleeing civil war, Rohingya forced out of Myanmar and Hondurans fearing gang violence, according to lawyers.

Lawyers say the holdup is most acute in USCIS’s center in Arlington, Va., near where the majority of Uighurs in the U.S. have settled. Rights groups put the number of Uighurs in the country at less than 8,000.

Many Uighurs whose applications have been held up came to the U.S. to study or for work or holiday, then filed for asylum as Chinese authorities tightened control in Xinjiang and it became clear that having international ties was cause enough to get locked up.

Among those in limbo is Tahir Hamut, a poet and filmmaker who applied in late 2017 and has spoken to The Wall Street Journal about the detention camps and his family’s harrowing escape from China. Shortly after one article was published, Mr. Hamut said, his younger brother disappeared in Xinjiang and two female relatives got called in for police interrogation.

“Since the situation in our homeland is so hard right now, the Uighur people in the United States are facing a huge psychological stress,” he said by telephone from Fairfax, Va., as his 18-year-old daughter Asena translated. Mr. Hamut said he used an appearance two years ago at a religious-freedom event chaired by U.S. Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to request faster application processing, but hasn’t seen results.

His daughter said the family’s uncertain legal status makes her ineligible to join the U.S. Air Force, despite spending two years in a high-school Reserve Officers’ Training Corps program. She is giving up hopes of affording her dream schools, George Mason University or Virginia Tech.

“I’m thinking of changing my plans, going to a community college,” she said.

President Trump last month signed a law aiming to punish top Chinese policy makers and companies associated with repression of Islamic minority groups, including Uighurs. The State Department has targeted Chinese officials, including Chen Quanguo, China’s top appointee to Xinjiang and a member of the Communisty Party’s 25-member Politburo.

The U.S. has also blocked certain imports from Xinjiang and placed goods on watch that might be produced with forced labor.

Uighurs overseas applaud such actions as long overdue. But unprecedented political recognition has done little to get asylum applicants out of their immigration logjam.

The Trump administration has rarely made exceptions for applicants from any particular country, including Cubans or Venezuelans, whose governments are the target of tough U.S. policies. U.S. congressional efforts to welcome some Hong Kong residents after China enacted a national-security law in the territory would run on a separate track from the asylum process.

Beijing has defended stepped-up policing and what it calls vocational training centers in Xinjiang as necessary to combat extremism. It denounces sanctions by the U.S. as interference in China’s domestic affairs.

Lawyers say Uighurs have traditionally had very little problem winning asylum in the U.S. “Uighur cases have an astonishingly high approval rate,” said Rockville, Md., lawyer Brian Mezger. Nearly 100% of the Uighurs he has represented over more than two decades have obtained asylum.

In a pivotal change to the asylum system, U.S. immigration authorities in early 2018 adopted a type of last-in, first-out system to prioritize interviews with the newest applicants. The idea was to weed out those the administration said had in past years mainly sought ways to work legally in the U.S. and didn’t have a clear claim to asylum.

The effect was to push existing applicants to the back of the line. A 32-year-old Uighur woman in Boston said she and her husband have been waiting for an interview since 2014—and have had a son in the meantime—while an application by her younger sister after the policy changed in 2018 was approved in three months.

USCIS said that its broader efforts to control frivolous and fraudulent asylum claims are paying dividends and that the most recent numbers show its backlog is growing less quickly.

Like other Uighurs interviewed, the woman in Boston said she and her sister didn’t come to the U.S. intending to stay but both grew anxious as friends and family members back in China were increasingly harassed and sometimes detained, making their own returns to China all but impossible. “We do not have a country, and our life is jeopardized if we go back,” she said, fearing problems for her parents in Xinjiang if she speaks out.

Ms. Awut, who lost teaching jobs during the pandemic, is for now living with her son at the home of a friend near San Francisco. She said Chinese police sometimes attempt to question her via the social-messaging platform WeChat but that she has been unable to connect with her mother, brother or sister since 2016.

“I don’t know if they are alive,” she said.

Source: China’s Muslim Uighurs Are Stuck in U.S. Immigration Limbo

About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

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