In October, Britain's Passport Office granted an average of five passports every minute to residents of Hong Kong—each one a potential lifeline to someone fleeing China's crackdown on the formerly autonomous city.
More than 216,000 residents of Hong Kong received "British National (Overseas)" passports during the first 10 months of 2020, according to data obtained by Bloomberg from the British government. More than 59,000 were issued in October alone. Both of those figures represent huge increases over annual norms.
In July, Britain upgraded the status of those special "BNO" passports, which are available to Hongkongers because of the territory's historical ties to the British government. Now BNO passport-holders are allowed to relocate to Britain for up to five years and have access to a path to full-time U.K. citizenship. The new rules were passed in direct response to China's crackdown, especially the June passage of a national security law allowing the central government to clamp down on civil liberties.
China has criticized Britain for opening its doors in this way, but the U.K. deserves praise for acting quickly and decisively in defense of freedom. Bloomberg's reporting certainly suggests that demand is surging for this escape route.
It is shameful that America has not stepped up to do something similar.
Hongkongers currently have few options for coming to America. They can seek political asylum in the United States—and an executive order signed by President Donald Trump in July does reserve more spots on the refugee list for people fleeing Hong Kong—but to claim asylum one must be physically present in the United States. That, in turn, requires having another type of visa in order to get on a plane across the Pacific. Meanwhile, the Trump administration has slashed the number of political refugees the country will accept: just 15,000 during the current fiscal year, down from 85,000 in 2016.
Britain issued nearly four times as many BNOs to Hongkongers in October as the number of refugees America will accept from the entire world this year.
What could America do instead? Some members of Congress have proposed a bill to automatically grant asylum to any resident of Hong Kong who arrives in the United States and to exempt those numbers from the official refugee counts set by the White House. A more robust idea, proposed by Matt Yglesias in May, would be to grant a special visa allowing Hongkongers to settle in American counties where the population is shrinking, with permanent residency granted after five years.
"An influx of skilled migrants from Hong Kong would benefit many American communities," wrote Yglesias, then a senior editor at Vox. "The specter of tens of thousands of people fleeing Chinese rule for American shores would be a tremendous propaganda victory for the United States."
China's loss would be America's gain. An influx of people from Hong Kong—and the knowledge, skills, money, and entrepreneurship they would bring—would be an economic boon for the United States, particularly if they resettle in areas where the population is stagnant or declining. Claims that refugees don't share American values would be even less legitimate than usual: Protesters in Hong Kong have been literally waving American flags as a symbol of their resistance.
Those who could benefit most from such an escape hatch are critics of the Chinese Communist Party. People like Joshua Wong, the secretary-general of the pro-democracy political party Demosisto, who spoke with Reason's Zach Weissmueller in June. Wong had been arrested in 2019 for organizing protests and was arrested again in September.
Even while trying to look tough on China, the Trump administration has fumbled an opportunity to set aside its anti-immigrant zealotry to throw open the doors for Hongkongers looking to escape. President-elect Joe Biden has criticized Trump's response to the protests in Hong Kong, but Biden has not offered many specifics about what he would do differently.
While America dawdles, the passport-printing machines in Britain are running at full speed.