Lawmakers Urge Boost in Uyghur Refugee Admissions

The State Department stopped providing aggregate data on refugees’ religions last year.

Good morning. We have a not particularly lighthearted edition of Uphill for you today—balance out the vibes by enjoying this dog dressed as a bumblebee before reading ahead.

Congress Responds to Zero Uyghur Refugees Resettled 

Two weeks ago, we reported the disturbing fact that the United States admitted zero Uyghur refugees in the past year—despite the State Department’s determination that the Chinese government’s atrocities against Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities in Xinjiang amount to genocide.

Some Uyghurs already in the United States have waited years for their asylum cases to be processed. Others are living in countries like Turkey and Egypt, where they fear being unjustly extradited to China. 

The Dispatch learned about the number of Uyghurs admitted in fiscal year 2021 from a document detailing refugees’ countries of origin, followed by confirmation from a State Department spokesperson. But this method is not easily accessible to the public, and the countries of origin spreadsheet is not a clear indicator for the number of refugees resettled from other religious groups. 

It isn’t just the general public out of the loop, though: We spoke with several members of Congress and experts who work on these issues, and most were surprised to learn the United States didn’t resettle any Uyghurs through the refugee program in fiscal year 2021. That’s partly because the State Department stopped sharing reports with this kind of information last year. 

The Refugee Processing Center used to track religious demographics of admitted refugees and made the information publicly available online. But the State Department stopped publishing the data in October 2020. 

Advocates at the time said the change would make it more difficult to keep the government transparent in meeting its admissions goals. The need for accountability is even more marked today with an active genocide designation and as lawmakers debate legislation to make it easier for Uyghurs to apply for asylum. 

Rep. Tom Malinowski—a New Jersey Democrat who testified recently before the Congressional-Executive Commission on China about refugees from Hong Kong and Xinjiang—said the State Department should make the information public again.

“There’s no privacy concerns with respect to categories,” he told The Dispatch last week when asked about the removal of the religion data. “It’s important for us to understand what the trends are, where people are coming from, what parts of the world. All of that, I think, should be recorded.”

When the data was removed under the Trump administration, a State Department spokesperson attributed the change to the development of a new information technology system, expected to be completed next month, as well as concerns about privacy, according to the Religion News Service.

The shift did not sit well with faith-based refugee resettlement organizations. Matthew Soerens of the Christian organization World Relief told RNS that the change made it harder to “hold our government accountable to its commitments to protect those fleeing violations of their religious liberty globally.”

Soerens pointed out in a conversation with The Dispatch last week that the information disappeared from the website a couple of months after World Relief, in conjunction with the Christian refugee advocacy organization Open Doors USA, published a report based on the State Department’s data about the steep drop in the number of religious minorities resettled in the United States during the Trump administration.

A State Department spokesperson reiterated to The Dispatch Monday that the information remains unavailable because of the work on a new IT system. 

“The Refugee Processing Center will provide additional reporting on the website throughout 2022 once the new IT system is fully deployed,” the spokesperson said. 

But the department has not indicated whether the religion data will return: “We have yet to determine which specific reports will be available, but we will take into account data protection and refugee privacy concerns,” the spokesperson added.

Lawmakers from both parties have called for measures to make it easier for Uyghur refugees to come to the United States. Members involved in the debate responded to The Dispatch’s story by urging action to fix America’s refugee system and to grant Uyghurs priority status.

“Victims of repression worldwide look to the United States for help,” Democratic Sen. Jeff Merkley, who co-chairs the Congressional-Executive Commission on China, said. “When we can offer that help, I feel we must. I’m extremely disappointed that the United States has not been welcoming Uyghur refugees to our shores. We need to take immediate steps to change that, including extending Priority 2 refugee status to Uyghurs, which we should also extend to the people of Hong Kong fleeing Chinese government persecution.”

Rep. Jim McGovern, the Massachusetts Democrat who also co-chairs the commission, agreed Uyghurs should be prioritized.

“Recognizing that the Biden administration inherited a gutted system, I’m disappointed that processing continues to be slow and burdensome, not just for applications by eligible Uyghur refugees who have been vetted for resettlement by the UNHCR, but for so many refugees whose applications for resettlement in the U.S. remain backlogged,” he said. “It is urgent that this matter be remedied as quickly as possible.”

But action from Congress is uncertain. Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio, a member of the commission and a sponsor of bipartisan legislation to grant Uyghurs priority refugee status, said he has not heard any updates from Senate leaders on whether the bill could receive a vote soon.

“Anything that has to do with immigration obviously becomes a target for other immigration-related topics, so it’s always hard to move on those,” Rubio told The Dispatch last week. “But hopefully it’s something we can include in some other piece of legislation without becoming a forum for a fight on everything else.”

Bill to Watch

Charlotte took a look at legislation responding to the Burmese military coup for us today: 

In the eight months since Burma’s security forces seized unilateral control of the country, expelling de-facto civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi and other democratically elected officials, the international community has grappled with how to address increased violence facing Burmese civilians. The junta’s sweeping human rights abuses—which include indiscriminate arrests, ethnic-based violence, and shutting down independent media outlets—have, thus far, been largely undeterred by traditional diplomatic mechanisms like condemnations and resolutions. 

A group of lawmakers is seeking a stronger response from the United States. The legislation has not yet advanced through committees of jurisdiction, but supporters are feeling a sense of urgency as violence continues in Burma. 

As of early November, more than 1,200 people have been killed and nearly 9,600 arrested in the military’s crackdown on protests opposing the takeover. Another 220,000 are now displaced amid fighting and 3 million require immediate, life-saving assistance, according to the United Nations.

The situation gained renewed attention last week, when a military offensive in the Chin state destroyed more than 100 homes and churches. In a statement addressing the attacks, State Department spokesman Ned Price said the incident “lays bare the regime’s complete disregard for the lives and welfare of the people of Burma.” He called on the generals to cease violence, release the detained, and resume the country’s transition to full civilian rule.

Last month, members of Congress in both chambers rolled out legislation to push back on the Burmese armed forces. House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Gregory Meeks, Rep. Steve Chabot, and Sen. Ben Cardin introduced the Burma Unified through Rigorous Military Accountability Act of 2021, or BURMA Act, to hold the military accountable for the February coup d'état and ensuing human rights abuses.

If passed, the legislation would encourage the State Department to classify the military’s systematic targeting of the Rohingya—a Muslim minority group and the target of historical persecution by Burmese civilian and military governments—as a genocide. In addition, it would extend civil society and humanitarian assistance to the Burmese people and authorize additional sanctions against the military, state administrative councils, and associated entities responsible for the takeover.

“What we’re seeing there is incredibly troublesome, including the fact that we have a person from the state of Michigan—who is a reporter—being held there by authorities,” said Sen. Gary Peters, one of the bill’s co-sponsors, in reference to detained journalist Danny Fenster

Cardin, the Maryland Democrat who sponsored the legislation, said he is working to get the bill on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s calendar. He told The Dispatch on Monday night that he’s also trying to win additional Republican support for the measure, including from Indiana Sen. Todd Young, who supported a previous measure related to Burma but did not sign on to the more recent effort.

“It acts as additional strength in our tool kit to make it clear to the military regime that their coup is unacceptable and there’ll be consequences,” Cardin said. “You never know what’s going to bring about change, but I do think it’s a strong bill.”

On the Floor

House members could vote on the repeatedly delayed bipartisan infrastructure bill this week, as well as Democrats’ Build Back Better Act. The House may also consider the annual intelligence authorization measure. Members are expected to approve a handful of uncontroversial bills dealing with small businesses this week, among other items. The chamber passed several bills related to Native Americans yesterday. A full list of bills up for consideration in the House this week, along with legislative text, is available here.

The Senate will consider a slate of executive nominees this week.

Key Hearings

  • Officials from the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security will appear before the House Intelligence Committee on Wednesday morning for a hearing on domestic terrorism. Information and livestream here.

  • The House Homeland Security Committee will hold a hearing tomorrow at 10 a.m. on evolving the U.S. approach to cybersecurity. Information and livestream here.

  • Head of the Federal Aviation Administration Steve Dickson will appear before the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee on Wednesday morning to testify on implementing aviation safety reform. Information and livestream here.

  • CDC Director Rochelle Walensky, Dr. Anthony Fauci, and other public health officials will testify before the Senate HELP Committee on Thursday morning about the road ahead for the U.S. coronavirus response. Information and livestream here.

  • The House Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress will hold a hearing Thursday morning on strengthening congressional oversight capacity. Information and livestream here.

  • The House Judiciary Committee will hold a hearing on the Texas abortion law on Thursday morning. Information and livestream here.

Of Note

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