Where is the U.S. Refugee Plan?
Terry H. Schwadron
March 8, 2022
Amid all the saber-rattling and calls for tough resistance in the United States over Russian aggression against Ukraine, one front seems silent.
While there is plenty of push for oil and financial stoppages, more munitions for Ukrainian resistance, there is little move to bring substantial numbers of the quickly amassing Ukrainian refugees to this country. In this regard, we apparently once again adopt our isolationist roots and think of mass refugees as a European problem.
The Biden administration did announce last week that it would grant temporary protection to Ukrainians already in the United States, a key first step . But realistically, that will do little to address the greater humanitarian crisis.
The Department of Homeland Security order will permit Ukrainian visitors here before March 1 — more than a week and lots of major evacuation effort ago — to remain beyond time-limited visas for the next 18 months. This TPS status, as it is called, typically is offered to non-citizens suffering from natural disasters or armed conflict. The federal government could decide to extend their protections after that.
As Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas outlined a few days ago, it could cover up to 70,000 Ukrainians, but right now the American Immigration Service says it will affect about 34,000 who lack another kind of legal immigration status. Most are in Illinois, Michigan California, New York. About 4,000 of them were facing deportation, but we have suspended deportation flights to Ukraine and its neighbors.
But we’re hearing that the evacuee exodus from Ukraine already has hit 1.7 million, a millon of them children, and is likely to double or triple. Where is all that American bravado in the effects of war?
To me, there is an apparent anti-immigrant US. resentment in the silence that smacks of earlier eras in which U.S. doors were shut to the war-torn.
Where’s the Plan?
You would think that even as security folks are thinking through military and diplomatic options, our government would be actively working on the building refugee crisis. It is a direct lesson from Afghanistan, where popular outcry grew large over lagging U.S. efforts to grease the skids for evacuation from a hurried and horrible takeover by the Taliban.
Whatever else you can say about Ukraine, there’s been nothing rushed about it.
Yet, reports on the ground show that with few exceptions, is a loose coalition of non-governmental entities, church-linked groups, do-gooders, and the ever-present chef Jose Andres that are leading the refugee-aid efforts.
Though Poland, Romania and even Hungary have made exodus more possible, no one is talking about making the arrangements permanent or even long-term. Only Israel, haunted by the images of generations past, stepped up to fly nearly 3,000 Ukrainian Jews to a new life so far, but is already talking about a cap.
There are plenty of Congress members waving blue and gold colors and criticizing Joe Biden over the pace of weapons delivery, even threatening no-fly zones that might provoke wider war, but almost nothing about outreach to resettle the refugee population. In cities like New York, with the largest number of residents of Ukrainian descent in the country, the effort is on fund-raising for humanitarian aid and parades of support. In Washington, the effort is on sending blankets and money.
There is no question that Europe, which already has declared itself straining under refugee flows from Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and African conflicts, will face continuing and serious issues with feeding, housing and resettling millions of Ukrainians. Of course, the circumstances are such that helping Ukrainians — white Ukrainians — is being seen as patriotic rather than burdensome.
Still, the practical problems ahead are enormous, and we should be hearing a lot more about preparing for what will happen.
No Airlift, No Programs
As invasion loomed, U.S. officials implored Americans to leave the country immediately and added that no rescuers would be coming for those who stayed behind. More to the point, they underscored that there would be no repeat airlift of refugees to the United States as we had seen in Afghanistan.
Homeland Security’s bromide that “In these extraordinary times, we will continue to offer our support and protection to Ukrainian nationals in the United States” seems to have little practical effect for those shoving themselves onto trains to get out.
The government could revisit the drastic cuts on legal immigration for refugees imposed by the Donald Trump administration. The number of European refugees the United States can accept is capped at 10,000 for this year, and as of February, 335 of those slots had already been filled, mostly by Ukrainians. The government could authorize more travel and issue “humanitarian parole,” a streamlined procedure used for fleeing Afghans which allows people facing urgent humanitarian need to enter and stay in the US without a visa.
For that matter, Congress so intent on tough talk, could get more practical about offering targeted refugee aid to Europe and support for getting people out. The TPS extension followed pressure from Congress.
The ugly truth was that there was a vocal minority after Afghanistan that insisted Biden has failed by not getting more people out, but who also opposed resettlement in the United States.
Will we address that particular mismatch now?