Refugees at Our Border
Terry H. Schwadron
March 16, 2022
With the predictability of sunrise, Ukrainians — and Russians — have started showing up at the U.S. Southern border asking to enter this country.
And in our country’s messy way of ignoring whatever we don’t have to fix or can’t agree how to fix, we’re seeing a very bumpy way of trying to welcome war refugees. Indeed, people are being turned away.
While many countries are opening borders to fleeing Ukrainians, the United States is stuck, often turning away new asylum seekers. The numbers are small right now, maybe 250 for the single week that started this conflict with personal tales of woe, but an outflow of more than 3 million from Ukraine into neighboring countries will quickly become a sizeable issue beyond individual faces caught up in war.
Yet Americans are finding ourselves caught between Joe Biden’s words of offering welcome to Ukrainians and living by the Impenetrable immigration rules we’ve set up, or those that we have failed to change from the Donald Trump years or those that have been handed out in court decisions.
Whether European refugees will be treated more generously than Central Americans, Haitians, Syrians and Afghans in the refugee influxes that have preceded them is an open question. Among the many questions our fouled and flummoxed immigration procedures and our American responses are raising are those about race and ethnicity.
What exactly makes fleeing from unprovoked violence in Ukraine essentially different from escaping unprovoked gang violence in Honduras?
A Rise in Ukrainian Refugees
A Time Magazine analysis of Customs and Border Patrol data shows the number of encounters with Ukrainians and Russians at the border increased 753% between 2020 and 2021. Since November, the number of Ukrainians and Russians encountered at the border has already surpassed the previous two years, though the number since Russian troops began surrounding Ukraine is not yet available. Anecdotal evidence from The San Diego Rapid Response Network’s Migrant Shelter Services, which operates a shelter for people who have just crossed the U.S.-Mexico border, points to an uptick of Ukrainian and Russian migrants.
Biden has granted temporary protective status to 34,000 Ukrainians who were in the United States by March 1, but that will do nothing for those still streaming out of the war zone.
But even a cursory look at the quickly overwhelming numbers in Poland, Romania, Hungary as Ukrainian neighbors are seeing suggests that migration won’t stop there. Canada also announced March 10 that it would accept an unlimited number of Ukrainians to the country, for example.
Still, despite welcoming words from Biden, we’re already hearing some American voices rising in expectation that while we care about Ukrainians, it is a European problem, not ours.
The New York Times ran a recent story noting the contradictions in our immigration policies and the stall in a split Congress to do anything about them.
There is no political chance of any comprehensive legislation to address the breadth of immigration issues, and the political parties are far apart in whether immigration is essentially a policing problem, as Republicans see it, or a basic humanitarian and economic issue, as many Democrats talk about it.
As a result, the Biden administration has changed some policies of the Trump administration that were considered inhumane, but because of various lawsuits and the lack of new legislation, has kept many other policies, including deportations, alive. For example, numbers show that the Biden Administration has used the so-called Title 42 emergency health order to expel many more people than the Trump administration did — in part because there were many more people arriving at the border.
Where Are We?
According to the Times account, Biden’s steps to roll back his predecessor’s agenda on immigration have eliminated sweeping bans on Muslim-majority countries and a rule allowing officials to deny green cards to immigrants in need of public assistance. In all, Biden has taken nearly 300 executive actions on immigration, according to the Migration Policy Institute including technical rules, has lifted legal immigration numbers and has halted raids on immigrant workplaces. Significantly, Biden’s government allowed minors arriving by themselves to cross the border, including an exemption from using public health measures as a justification for turning away minors.
Biden create a task force to reunited minors separated from their parents under Trump, and he halted settlement negotiations for the families for governments payments.
The very same actions have drawn unending criticism from Republican leaders, who simply want the border virtually closed to Central Americans and who see Biden’s liberalizations as an invite to “open borders.” There has been criticism from the political left as well, from those who are disappointed that there is not faster adoption of a full reset of U.S. immigration rules.
An effort to put Vice President Kamala Harris in charge of dealing with Central American governments to change the “root cause” of emigration to the United States seems mired in inaction and corruption.
And the courts have taken a role, variously stopping the Biden administration from pursuing some changes and insisting on others in what has amounted to a scattergun approach to immigration policy-setting.
In all, there is a big gap between Biden campaign talk about immigration and steady, measurable progress that any group finds acceptable. In his State of the Union speech this month, Biden called for Congress to step up to handle immigration, but it was a call that left the Republican half sitting on their hands.
Yet, just this week, there were bipartisan calls to reconsider temporary work permit visas for construction workers because employers are complaining that they cannot attract enough workers. Of course, that same economic argument applies for truckers, teachers and technical workers of all sorts.
The bottom line is that amid an emergency involving war in Europe resulting in millions of refugees, the United States is ill-prepared to be a welcoming new home. Indeed, the steady increase in refugees and asylum seekers is bound to result in governmental paralysis.