The House of Representatives voted Monday to welcome Hong Kong residents to live temporarily in the United States, vowing to be a beacon for rights as China clamps down in the territory.
The House moved by consensus to issue so-called Temporary Protected Status for five years to Hong Kong residents, meaning that people from the financial hub will have the right to work in the United States and will not be subject to deportation.
The initiative must still be approved by the Senate, but it enjoys support across party lines, unlike a previous bid by Democrats to extend the status to Venezuelans that was effectively blocked by President Donald Trump and his Republican Party.
Congressman Tom Malinowski, a Democrat from New Jersey who sponsored the Hong Kong bill, said the decision to "self-confidently open our doors" was more powerful than moving to "slap a few sanctions" on Chinese officials, as the State Department again did Monday.
"The best way to win against a dictatorship is to pit the strength of our system against the weakness of theirs, to hold up the glaring contrast between our free, open and self-confident democracy against the weakness of the oppressive, closed and fearful system that the Communist Party has imposed on the Chinese people, including now in Hong Kong," Malinowski said on the House floor.
"It's actually much more than a humanitarian gesture. It's one of the best ways to deter China from crushing Hong Kong," he added.
China in June imposed a tough new security law that criminalizes dissent in Hong Kong. Since then, authorities have arrested and jailed young activists who expressed their views and disqualified pro-democracy lawmakers in the city's legislature.
In recent months, former colonial power Britain has offered a pathway for Hong Kong residents to become citizens, and Canada has made immigration easier.
If the Senate approves, Hong Kong would be the only wealthy place to enjoy Temporary Protected Status, which has been issued by Congress or the White House to protect hundreds of thousands of people from war-ravaged nations such as Somalia, Syria and Yemen.
The Trump administration has moved to end the status for people from El Salvador, Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras, Nepal and Sudan, leading to legal challenges and accusations that the outgoing president cares more about keeping out non-white immigrants than ensuring they are out of harm's way.