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Ukraine Is Biden's Chance to Redeem His Sordid Refugee Resettlement Record
He needs to quickly undo Trump's legacy and rebuild the refugee program bigger and better
Wikipedia Commons, Kyiv City State Administration. Evacuation of people from vulnerable categories to Europe on special buses as part of Austria and Germany's evacuation mission after the Russian attack on Ukraine.
The Biden administration’s March 24 announcement that the U.S. will accept up to 100,000 Ukrainian refugees is welcome news. In less than a month, 10 million Ukrainians have been displaced, including 1.5 million children. Poland alone already has taken in more than 2 million refugees.
The refugee situation stemming from Russia’s attack on Ukraine is an opportunity for the Biden administration to decisively reverse the awful policies of its predecessor and reestablish America as a beacon of hope, freedom and democracy to people around the world. But in order to follow through on our commitment to Ukrainians — and to do right by others around the world fleeing war and persecution — tough work lies ahead.
To be sure, the administration is taking positive steps. In addition to its commitment to welcome up to 100,000 Ukrainian refugees, it has offered Temporary Protected Status to Ukrainians already here. It has committed personnel and billions of dollars in aid to nations in Europe where many Ukrainian refugees may want to stay. Congress also took a strong step by reauthorizing the Lautenberg amendment, which allows easier access to the U.S. refugee resettlement system for certain religious minorities in Ukraine and elsewhere.
All of these actions are only first steps that ideally would be merely an opening bid. But making good on even these commitments right now would require a refugee settlement system that is both swift and orderly — words not often used to describe what America currently has.
The hard reality is that we are admitting more fleeing Ukrainians at a time when forced migration around the world is growing. If we are going to protect Ukrainians without shifting significant resources away from other refugees, we’ll need to reform the resettlement system.
That system remains decimated from COVID-19 and Trump administration cuts, and the Biden administration has not done enough to proactively rebuild it. The resettlement pipeline remains simply too slow to be effective — the whole process can take two to 10 years from start to finish.
Current numbers offer proof: In February, the U.S. resettled just 426 Ukrainian refugees, and only 2,133 refugees total. Actual resettlement numbers may be declining in March: Reuters reported that the U.S. resettled only seven Ukrainian refugees from March 1-16.
And almost halfway through the fiscal year, we’re on track to resettle just 16,000 refugees total, an embarrassing pace given our refugee resettlement ceiling of 125,000 for the year.
Thanks to Biden’s lack of political will, the refugee admissions program remains uncoordinated and under-resourced, resulting in low resettlement numbers. In both fiscal 2021 and the current fiscal year, the administration’s initial indecisiveness over whether even to raise the refugee ceiling meant that flights of refugees from Syria and elsewhere whose petitions had already been thoroughly vetted and approved had to be cancelled at the last minute, resulting in a decline in overall resettlement.
Before Biden took office, experts estimated that given the state of the system, 50,000 refugees resettled would be a realistic goal for Biden’s first fiscal year. We are now almost halfway through the president’s term, and we have resettled not even half of that modest number in the two years combined.
So, what can we do to make the administration’s commitment to Ukrainians more than the empty promise it has been for other refugees? The administration and Congress will need to use all the tools and pathways at their disposal.
First, we must use diplomatic tools to help establish and safeguard humanitarian corridors for Ukrainians trying to flee, as well as continue to support Poland and other neighboring countries resettling the majority of refugees.
To actually resettle 100,000 Ukrainians on U.S. soil, we first should surge resources and personnel to the U.S. refugee processing centers in Chisinau, Moldova, and expedite processing of Ukrainian refugees who were already in the pipeline, including thousands of Lautenberg cases. The government also should prioritize visa processing for Ukrainians abroad with pending immigrant and nonimmigrant applications.
The government can sidestep the slow two-to-10-year refugee process by offering humanitarian parole for certain Ukrainians. Under this process, folks fleeing dangerous situations can be admitted quickly. But there is a big downside to it: unlike typical refugees, they are allowed only temporary stays and offered no path to permanent status. This route was used to admit 75,000 Afghan refugees, but now they are stuck in limbo without a clear path to green cards until Congress passes a separate bill adjusting their status. For this reason, using humanitarian parole may be best suited for Ukrainians who have some other way to permanent status in the U.S. — such as those with family members here who can file family-based petitions – but not as a main tool to offer relief.
But thanks to the weaknesses the initial Afghan resettlement effort exposed in the humanitarian-parole process, immigration authorities are piloting new expedited pathways for prospective Afghan evacuees still languishing in U.S. bases abroad. This program would rapidly vet and approve petitions within 90 to 120 days and hand these people permanent status, essentially transforming America’s plodding refugee system. This should be quickly finalized and expanded. Indeed, streamlining our resettlement system would allow us not just to better respond to the Ukraine and Afghan crises, but to finally protect refugees from Syria, the Congo and elsewhere who have been stuck in the refugee pipeline for years.
This ambitious legal revamp also requires some ground-level changes if it is going to be successful in actually resettling people once they are in America, rather than leaving them in the lurch. More than a third of refugee resettlement offices were forced to close down due to the restrictive policies of the previous administration, and many still have not yet reopened. These offices play a critical role in the initial resettlement and integration of refugees into our communities, including by getting kids into school and assisting adults with employment and degree-transfer opportunities.
Admitting more refugees is not charity. Refugees bring talents and expertise that are hugely beneficial to host countries and communities. A 2017 government report found that in the previous decade, refugees generated $63 billion more in government revenues than they consumed in benefits programs. They also play a key role in bolstering our national security posture; welcoming the persecuted reinforces geopolitical stability and signals to oppressive regimes the futility and disrepute of their practices.
Offering refuge to those persecuted and attacked by dictators and despots strengthens our country and helps reclaim our leadership as a champion for those fleeing persecution and turmoil in the world. It brings out the best in America and Americans.
The words and deeds of Americans show they are ready to seize the moment. The Biden administration and Congress must not let them down.
Danilo Zak is a Policy and Advocacy Manager at the National Immigration Forum.
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