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The U.S. delays extending political safe haven status to people from Hong Kong


In 2021, President Biden offered people from Hong Kong already in the U.S. temporary asylum. That meant they didn't have to go back to the Chinese territory where some say they might face political persecution. But that reprieve is up, and the U.S. is waiting until the last minute to extend the safe haven status. As NPR's Emily Feng reports, that's left thousands of other Hong Kongers in limbo.

EMILY FENG, BYLINE: Cam Koo was a student activist in Hong Kong. And when that became unsafe, he came to the U.S. nearly 18 months ago to work as a lawyer under something called the Deferred Enforced Departure or DED that gave anyone with a Hong Kong ID or passport 18 months to live and work in the U.S., but not a path to citizenship.

CAM KOO: It has provided me an alternative pathways where I can still engage in Hong Kong's politics and at the same time also actually work in a field that has always been my dream.

FENG: Giving politically outspoken Hong Kongers safe haven was a way for the U.S. to push back on Beijing's now complete political control over Hong Kong. But now that DED expires February 5. And Koo's job, his life in the U.S. and maybe his freedom could go with it, he fears.

KOO: If they don't renew it, I can't work at all. They would just terminate me on the day if I don't get the renewal.

FENG: He's among many Hong Kong activists who've been worried lately. Anna Kwok is executive director for the Hong Kong Democracy Council, a Washington advocacy group lobbying for a DED extension. She's critical the U.S. government has not decided yet on a DED extension, even as its last days tick down.

ANNA KWOK: These are people's lives. And people are in a very vulnerable position when they don't really know where they're headed next.

FENG: More than 3,000 Hong Kongers could be impacted if their status isn't renewed on time, especially political activists. One of them is Huen Lam in Washington, D.C. She left Hong Kong after campaigning for an opposition politician who came under persecution. And now in the U.S., Lam's continued her pro-democracy political activism.

HUEN LAM: I'm very anxious just talking about it and very stressful because that isn't a path that I envisioned for myself. So I think prison would be a very likely option if I were to return to Hong Kong.

FENG: With every DED, Lam gets another 18 months of freedom, she says. But there is never a guarantee of that.

Emily Feng, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Emily Feng is NPR's Beijing correspondent.