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Uyghurs who fled China face lengthy asylum backlogs

Ethnic minorities facing persecution highlight a U.S. system under strain

Members of the Uyghur community, a mainly Muslim ethnic group originating from central and east Asia, rally against the Chinese government at the U.S. State Department on Sept. 15, 2021, in Washington.
Members of the Uyghur community, a mainly Muslim ethnic group originating from central and east Asia, rally against the Chinese government at the U.S. State Department on Sept. 15, 2021, in Washington. (Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images)

Soon after “Alim” arrived in the U.S. on a travel visa in 2014, he applied for asylum. As a Uyghur Muslim, he faced an uncertain future if returned to his native China, which was beginning a crackdown on ethnic minorities.

Seven years later, he’s still waiting for his asylum claim to be resolved.

During that time, his two children back home have grown into teenagers. His wife and two sisters were imprisoned in Chinese “re-education” camps, where he said they faced starvation and torture. His court hearing in the U.S. has been delayed repeatedly.

“I lost my family,” said Alim, whose real name was withheld to protect his family’s safety. “The immigration court killed my chance.”

Alim is one of roughly 800 Uyghurs caught in a backlog of hundreds of thousands seeking asylum in the U.S. His situation highlights the damage a strained asylum system can wreak on individuals fleeing very real harm.

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The lack of immigration relief for Uyghurs fleeing China is particularly ironic given recent U.S. efforts to hold the Chinese government accountable for its human rights abuses. In the final days of the Trump administration, the U.S. declared China’s treatment of Uyghurs a genocide, citing forced labor, re-education camps, even forced sterilizations. And last month, the U.S. vowed to diplomatically boycott the upcoming Winter Olympics in Beijing.

In December, President Joe Biden signed a law to prohibit goods produced in Xinjiang, the northwest region of China where most Uyghurs live and are imprisoned, from entering the U.S. unless companies can prove they were not made with forced labor.

“The current situation of the Uyghurs is really, really terrible,” said Mustafa Aksu, a program manager at the Uyghur Human Rights Project. “Some people have been waiting [for their claims to be heard] more than four years, five years — even though there is strong proof that they have been persecuted and they will be in great danger if they go back to China.”

Years of backlog

The U.S. asylum backlog affects immigrants from around the world, leaving people who fled danger and persecution in their home countries in limbo while they wait for their claims to be processed.

More than 667,000 people are currently waiting for court hearings in their asylum cases, according to government data compiled by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University. The average wait time is 1,621 days — or nearly four and a half years.

When Alim first applied for asylum, his claim was referred to an immigration court, with a hearing planned for September 2014. The hearing was moved to 2016, then to 2019, and continues to be postponed.

Like many asylum-seekers who have spent years waiting for their hearings, Alim applied for a work permit and currently works legally in the U.S. But he lives in constant fear about the fate of his family, who he says has been targeted by the Chinese government because of his connection to the U.S.

“If I got my asylum approval in 2016 — I get my family back here, they will be safe,” he said. “Right now, we don’t have the chance to get them here.”

A pending claim limits the stability asylum-seekers can achieve, even if they can work legally. Many are unable to access government benefits or education for themselves and their families, with no end date in sight. Uncertainty around their legal status also limits other options.

“They haven’t been settled down, so many families are affected,” Aksu said. “Some of their children want to go to college, or they want to go to a military academy, but because they have no status here yet, their cases haven’t been approved — so they’re waiting.”

Searching for solutions

Policies designed to help Uyghur Muslims have proved more bipartisan in Congress than most others related to immigration, with Republicans and Democrats in general agreement that more must be done to counter China’s treatment of ethnic minorities.

A handful of lawmakers have examined ways to make the U.S. immigration system more accessible to Uyghurs. A bill introduced in April by Sens. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., and Chris Coons, D-Del., would make Uyghurs eligible for priority refugee processing in the U.S.

However, that legislation is aimed at Uyghurs abroad seeking relief as refugees, not Uyghurs already in the U.S. in search of permanent protection through asylum. Refugees and asylees are granted similar rights; refugees seek their status outside the U.S. while asylum-seekers do so at U.S. borders or within the country.

“They should be given priority. I would say they probably have the most compelling case in the world right now for asylum,” Rubio said. “I’m not sure why they’re tied up in the broader backlog.”

Uyghurs seeking relief from outside the U.S. — typically from third countries, since China has all but stopped allowing Uyghurs to leave — face a whole different set of obstacles. In fiscal 2021, the U.S. did not resettle any Uyghurs through its refugee resettlement program.

“We have to work with our partners and allies,” said Rep. Ted Deutch, D-Fla., who sponsored the House version of the Rubio and Coons bill. “We have to work with the other countries to make sure again that the Uyghurs who are in those countries are taken care of and have the opportunity to seek asylum status here.”

Last in, first out

Uyghurs like Alim face their own set of difficulties tied to what critics call a misguided asylum system that unfairly excludes people who have waited the longest. Asylum claims are heard on a “last in, first out” basis, meaning that people who have applied for asylum recently are more likely to have their applications adjudicated quickly.

That policy began in January 2018, in an effort to stem the growth of the asylum backlog and deter applicants trying to use the asylum backlog to obtain employment authorization. But it also means applications like Alim’s have been effectively deprioritized.

“Once the policy was changed to ‘last in, first out,’ you face the obvious question of, well, what happens to those applicants that submitted their applications back in 2014? 2015? 2016?” said Farida Chehata, a managing attorney at Human Rights First.

The system is strained more than ever right now, in part because of tens of thousands of vulnerable Afghans seeking relief in the U.S. who have been granted humanitarian parole and must apply for asylum to receive permanent protection.

The government has prioritized applications from Afghans, Chehata said, and could theoretically do the same for Uyghurs. However, doing so could raise thorny questions about whether asylum-seekers from some ethnic groups face greater risk than others.

“Ensuring that [U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services] implements a fair and fast and uniform process of scheduling that prioritizes cases that have been pending the longest would help address some of the concern,” she said.

In a statement to CQ Roll Call, USCIS said it was “committed to using all available policy and operational improvements” to reduce the number of pending cases as well as wait times.

“Each case is reviewed based on the totality of the evidence and there may be variations in the length of adjudication,” a spokesperson said.

In October 2020, the advocacy group Uyghur American Association sent a letter to Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf asking for Uyghurs to be exempt from a rule limiting asylum eligibility and for their asylum cases to be expedited.

“They wish to send their children to school, serve in the United States military, and regain a sense of normalcy after fleeing persecution in China,” the group wrote. “They wish for nothing more than to become full, patriotic members of the United States and American society.”

While he waits for his hearing, Alim wonders what will happen to his family, particularly his sister, who he said emerged from the Xinjiang camps looking like a skeleton and has been “not normal” ever since.

His only means of communicating with his family is through his mother, who writes messages on a sheet of paper that she holds up on video. Chinese police regularly monitor their activities.

Growing up, Alim had always dreamed of living in the U.S., free from China’s authoritarian rule. He has achieved that dream — but at a steep price.

“Freedom for me is the only choice,” he said. “My dream has come true, but I lost a lot.”

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