More than most members of Congress, Sen. Ted Cruz (R–Texas) understands the desperation of individuals fleeing autocratic communist regimes.
Cruz's father, Rafael, fled Cuba in 1957 with little more than a student visa and $100 sewn into his underwear—an oft-repeated detail that effectively conveys both the fear and hopefulness of the refugee experience. The other details in the story are familiar to anyone who has followed Cruz's career, even in passing, given the prominence of those personal details in the senator's speeches. Rafael bribed his way out of Cuba, reached the United States, enrolled in college, worked as a dishwasher, earned his degree, and eventually started a successful business. Importantly, he was granted political asylum when his student visa expired.
If not for that last detail, it's highly unlikely that Rafael's son would have ever had the chance to stand on the floor of the U.S. Senate and declare, as he did on Friday, that America ought to make it more difficult for individuals and families to flee other oppressive communist regimes. In blocking the passage of a bill that would have granted political asylum to anyone fleeing Hong Kong due to the Chinese government's takeover of the formerly semi-autonomous city, Cruz not only dimmed America's status as a bastion of freedom for the world's oppressed people, but spat upon his own heritage as the son of a political refugee.
The bill Cruz blocked, the Hong Kong People's Freedom and Choice Act of 2020, would grant political asylum to any resident of Hong Kong who arrives in the United States, allowing them to remain in the country legally after the expiration of any other visa. The United States already extends that special status to refugees from 10 other countries, and the bill would have merely added Hong Kong to the list.
In remarks delivered on the Senate floor Friday, Cruz outlined two objections to the bill. Both are misleading, at best.
First, Cruz politicized the attempt to provide an exit strategy for Hongkongers, calling the bill a Democratic plot to "advance their long-standing goals on changing immigration laws." But the bill has a bipartisan list of cosponsors and passed the House earlier this month by a voice vote—usually an indicator of such broad support that no roll call is demanded.
Second, Cruz maligned Hong Kong refugees as potential spies, arguing that China would use the special immigration status to slip its agents into the United States. Except, well, China doesn't seem to have any trouble doing that already, and recipients of political asylum would have to undergo a background check before their status is granted. If anything, the bill's passage would ensure that immigrants from Hong Kong to America are subject to more vetting than they might otherwise receive.
Again, Cruz's father's story stands in stark contrast. Prior to fleeing to America, Rafael Cruz had worked for the Castro government in Cuba. If Ted were a member of the U.S. Senate at the time, would he have viewed his own father as a potential spy who should not be trusted with political asylum?
"My family knows the oppression of communist governments," Cruz said on the Senate floor Friday, once again invoking his father's story. He said it was important to "speak up for dissidents who are being tortured and oppressed" in China.
But speaking up only gets you so far. Cruz should be judged for his actions, not his words.
Cruz's biography aside, there is a more important and obvious point. Granting political asylum to Hongkongers looking to flee China is absolutely the right thing for the United States to do, politically and economically.
Politically, the image of tens of thousands of Hongkongers fleeing China's takeover of the city by relocating to the United States would be an international humiliation for the regime in Beijing. That's why China has tried to stop the United Kingdom from extending special immigration status to residents of Hong Kong—and the U.K. has responded, correctly, by turning its passport-making machines up to 11.
Economically, 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.
Instead of seizing that opportunity, America got the spectacle of a child of a political refugee slamming a door in the face of people seeking the same opportunity that his own father once received.
"When I was a kid, my father would say to me, over and over, 'When we face depression in Cuba, I had a place to flee to.' If we lose our freedom here, where do we go?" Cruz told The New York Times in 2015 while campaigning in New Hampshire.
Perhaps he should have listened more closely to what his father had to say.