washington - The Biden administration on Thursday granted a two-year stay of deportation for Hong Kongers in the U.S. who left amid what the administration calls a "significant erosion of human rights and fundamental freedoms" as Beijing tightens its control over the special administrative region.
"The United States is committed to a foreign policy that unites our democratic values with our foreign policy goals, which is centered on the defense of democracy and the promotion of human rights around the world," read the memorandum signed by President Joe Biden.
"Offering safe haven for Hong Kong residents who have been deprived of their guaranteed freedoms in Hong Kong furthers United States interests in the region. The United States will continue to stand firm in our support of the people in Hong Kong."
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security estimated that more than 3,800 people were eligible for the program when it was introduced in mid-2021. The original order was set to expire in February.
Human Rights Watch says the National Security Law imposed on Hong Kong in mid-2020 has had "devastating consequences for human rights."
The White House noted in its Thursday memorandum that over 10,000 people have been arrested on other charges related to anti-government protests, and the Washington-based Hong Kong Democracy Council says there are at least 1,300 political prisoners currently in Hong Kong.
Anna Kwok, HKDC's executive director, welcomed the extension and the broadening of the program to include newer arrivals.
But, she said, for many in the program, "another cycle begins afresh."
"The two-year lifeline is essential, but it remains true that we can only plan our lives so far ahead at once,' she said. 'Without longer-term solutions that offer humanitarian pathways, a U.S.-based movement for the cause of freedom and democracy in Hong Kong against Beijing's transnational repression isn't sustainable."
In addition, Kwok told VOA, the group hopes Secretary of State Antony Blinken will raise the issue of political prisoners when he travels next month to China.
"Secretary Blinken should not shy away from taking a consistent stance for the Biden administration," she said. "Given the [more than] 1,300 American companies in Hong Kong, an independent judiciary system is a rightful demand from the U.S. to an 'international financial center.'"
Human rights campaigners also welcomed the news, and echoed the concerns about the short timeline. Maya Wang, acting China director for Human Rights Watch, told VOA, "The extension is a welcome relief, but they shouldn't have to endure this roller coaster of an extension every two years, which leaves them with uncertainty, their lives in limbo."
"Human Rights Watch has called on the Biden administration to respect the right to seek asylum for all people and families, and create a new and orderly process for responding to migrants' various rights-based rationales for seeking to enter the country," Wang said. "That includes people seeking asylum from persecution, adapting to the effects of climate change, returning to places in the U.S. where noncitizens may have resided for many years, or reuniting with family members."
Chinese authorities strongly reject Washington's contention that the former British colony, which saw unprecedented pro-democracy protests in 2019, is backsliding. Britain returned the 1,000-square-kilometer area, which includes two large islands and a peninsula, to China in 1997.
"In the 25 years since Hong Kong's return to the motherland, the Chinese Central Government has stayed committed to fully, accurately and resolutely implementing the policies of 'one country, two systems' and 'Hong Kong people administering Hong Kong with a high degree of autonomy,' and strongly protected lawful rights and freedoms enjoyed by Hong Kong residents," read a statement issued Thursday by the Commissioner's Office of the Chinese Foreign Ministry in Hong Kong.
"It has been globally recognized that the practice of 'one country, two systems' in Hong Kong is a great success,' the office said. 'At present, Hong Kong is in a new period moving from chaos to stability and prosperity."
The extension now lasts through January 2025.