NEW YORK (Reuters) - China’s decision on Thursday to allow couples to have two children after decades of limiting families to a single child may slow the flood of Chinese immigrants receiving political asylum in the United States, legal experts said.
In recent years, more immigrants from China have been granted U.S. asylum than from any other country. According to federal statistics, asylum was given to more than 27,000 Chinese between 2011 and 2013, representing more than one third of all cases; Egypt had the second-most with about 7,300.
In part, that reflects an unusual aspect of U.S. immigration law that lowers the bar required for Chinese nationals seeking asylum.
A 1996 immigration reform bill expanded the definition of political refugees to include people who are forced to abort a child or undergo sterilization, or who reasonably fear such procedures, as a result of a “coercive population control program.”
That takes away some of the discretion normally afforded to judges and immigration officers to determine what constitutes political persecution, experts said.
“Asylum seekers from China have a particular advantage,” said Peter Kwong, a professor at Hunter College in New York and an expert on Chinese immigration. About 40 percent of all Chinese immigrants who are naturalized were granted political asylum, Kwong said.
Jason Dzubow, a Washington, D.C.-based immigration lawyer who specializes in asylum cases, said he expects that asylum seekers will now have a tougher time proving they face persecution.
“As the policy on the ground changes, it’s going to affect how these cases are litigated,” he said. “There is a resistance from the system when the facts on the ground have changed.”
Tammy Lin, an asylum attorney in San Diego, also said she expects the new policy will have a “significant impact” on the ability of Chinese immigrants to claim asylum based on coercive family planning laws.
But James Hathaway, director of the University of Michigan’s Program in Refugee and Asylum Law, said the legal standard will not change if Chinese officials enforce the new two-child limit through continued forced abortion, sterilization and other extreme measures.
“It’s still a limit on a person’s ability to decide what size family to have,” he said.
And Chinese immigrants will still be free to seek asylum on other grounds, including political dissent and claims of religious persecution.
Either way, the number of Chinese seeking asylum due to population control measures will likely shrink, experts said. They noted that many Chinese couples cannot afford to have more than one or two children anyway.
The downward trend may already have begun, after China loosened the one-child policy in 2013.
At least on an anecdotal basis, Dzubow said he had recently seen fewer Chinese asylum cases related to the policy.
Reporting by Joseph Ax; Editing by Tom Brown