The Moral Clarity of Resettling Refugees
More than 2 million Ukrainian refugees—including 1 million children—have fled the country in less than two weeks. It is the largest and fastest refugee exodus in Europe since World War II. And as Russia continues to escalate its attacks, the crisis shows no sign of abating. It’s one the United States has a moral obligation to help alleviate.
Poland is heroically managing the overwhelming majority of refugees. Countries across the European Union are stepping forward, even those that resisted refugees from the Middle East and elsewhere.
Meanwhile, the Biden administration has granted Temporary Protected Status to Ukrainians in the United States as of March 1. However, with regard to the millions in Europe seeking protection, the administration’s official position has been that the majority of Ukrainians will want to stay in Europe near family networks, close to Ukraine so they can return home if and when the crisis ends.
In the face of such a catastrophe, this is not an adequate response. The United States can and must do more—for Ukrainians, yes, but also for refugees fleeing conflict around the world, regardless of their nationality.
The United States has a legal process in place for admitting into the country refugees fleeing their homelands. The statutes setting out the refugee-admission process give the president the power to set an upper limit—a “cap” or “ceiling”—on the number of refugees whom the United States will take in. President Trump slashed the number of refugees admitted by more than 85 percent, from a cap of 110,000 that President Obama set for 2017 down to just 15,000 in 2020. Along the way, when the issue of refugee resettlement came up during a fall 2018 cabinet meeting, Stephen Miller infamously said, “What do you guys want? A bunch of Iraqs and ’Stans across the country?”
As a result of the cuts, a third of domestic resettlement offices were forced to close. Within U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, 352 refugee corps employees conducting approximately 110,000 refugee interviews a year fell to under 200 officers and barely any interviews.
The consequences for refugees around the world, as well as for American security, have been dire. President Biden set a resettlement cap of 125,000 for fiscal year 2022, but five months in, the administration is on track to resettle just 15,586. If that looks like a Trump-era number, that’s because it takes time and a true commitment to recover from Trump-era cuts.
When it comes to welcoming those who flee persecution, the American public is better than our current refugee system. Every day across the nation, communities welcome Afghan allies, helping those fleeing conflict. Meanwhile, Republican Governor Mike DeWine has already directed Ohio’s Department of Jobs and Family Services to convene a March 17 summit of various service organizations to prepare for the arrival of Ukrainian refugees. Following the Trump administration’s gutting, the administration has an opportunity to rebuild the system to be much nimbler and more effective—starting with ways to help Ukrainians.
Raising the overall refugee resettlement cap will not be enough. The United States should raise the regional refugee allocation for Europe, which currently stands at 10,000 for fiscal year 2022. That will clearly direct resources to the crisis and serve as a signal to the world that the United States understands the severity of the situation.
Second, the administration should use all the tools at hand to streamline entries in the immediate term. For example, Ukrainians with pending family-based immigrant visa applications should be expedited and able to enter the country via humanitarian parole, then adjust their status through their family-based case. Those who do not have a family petition pending or approved should be able to enter on some sort of expedited refugee status. There is ample precedent for each of these options over the last 40 years.
There are also several thousand applicants in the Ukrainian pipeline for the Lautenberg program, a family reunification program that allows certain individuals in the United States to bring their eligible family members from the former Soviet Union via the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program. These cases should be expedited, and these Ukrainians should be allowed to reunite with their families and finish their case processing.
Congress has taken the crucial step of including the Lautenberg amendment in the Fiscal Year 2022 omnibus spending package. The most recent application period for this program expired on September 3, 2021, so upon reauthorization, the cases of new Ukrainian applicants who qualify for the program should also be expedited.
All of this requires resources and personnel to do the work. Officers and support staff are needed to review applications, conduct interviews, perform background checks, and issue decisions. Given the ongoing crisis, resources should be focused on processing Ukrainian applications at the U.S. consulates in Poland, Romania, and Hungary.
The Biden administration must also deepen partnerships with international relief organizations to stand up necessary processing infrastructure, including virtual interviews and other practices that have become the norm over the course of the pandemic.
Over the longer term, the administration should assess and streamline operations of relevant offices in the departments of State, Homeland Security, and Health and Human Services. This will not be the last refugee crisis we see, so let’s be better prepared for the next one.
Our current refugee resettlement system was established, in large part, in response to the last major refugee crisis in Europe, when approximately 60 million people were displaced by World War II. That system was built during the early years of the Cold War, a time of growing nationalism and extremism.
President Dwight Eisenhower worked with Congress on the Refugee Relief Act to extend special visas above the nationality quotas allowed under immigration law at that time. Within a few years, the United States had welcomed 32,075 Hungarian refugees fleeing communism. While Eisenhower’s overall approach to immigration was complicated by his deportation of more than 1 million Mexican laborers (and their U.S. citizen children), he saw the moral clarity of refugee resettlement as a way to enhance our global leadership and national security.
As the world watches developments in Ukraine with alarm, the Biden administration has reclaimed our leadership role on foreign policy. A robust refugee resettlement program—one that can meet the urgent needs of Ukrainians today as well as of refugees seeking protection in the future—shows Americans and the world that we can be a nation of grace, compassion, and freedom.