The numbers speak for themselves.
Two months after the Russian invasion, more than 5 million Ukrainians have fled their nation: 2.8 million to Poland, 757,000 to Romania, 426,000 to Moldova, 471,000 to Hungary, 342,000 to Slovakia. Many have made their way to the other nations in the European Union, which have offered them “visa-free entry.” Others are planning to fly to Canada, which has authorized what it calls a “special, accelerated temporary residence pathway for Ukrainians seeking safe haven.” Under this program, an unlimited number of refugees will be allowed to stay, work, and study in Canada for up to three years.
And the United States? On March 24, 2022, President Joe Biden announced that the US would “welcome up to 100,000 Ukrainians and others fleeing Russia’s aggression through the full range of legal pathways, including the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program.” Programs would be developed and expanded “with a focus on welcoming Ukrainians who have family members in the United States.”
Mark Hetfield, the president and CEO of HIAS, one of the principal organizations providing humanitarian assistance to Ukrainians, spoke for many refugee advocates when he applauded Biden’s announcement—which came a month after the invasion and weeks after the European nations and Canada had set out their own refuge and resettlement plans. He cautioned, however, that “the devil and the angel [will be] in the details.”
Only on Thursday, April 21, almost two months after the Russian invasion, did the Biden administration announce plans to expedite Ukrainian resettlement by permitting US citizens and organizations to sponsor selected refugees, who, if they pass rigorous screening and security checks, would be allowed to remain in the country for two years. We have few details on how this program will work, only unanswered questions. If Ukrainians with American sponsors and those already in the country are given precedence, how many of the 100,000 allocated slots will be left for other refugees? Will Africans and others who have resided, worked, or studied in Ukraine but have no Ukrainian passport be eligible? When will the process be set in motion? When should we expect the refugees to arrive?
Ukrainians seeking further information on the State Department website are informed that they “should not attempt to apply for visas in order to travel to the United States as refugees,” but should instead “contact local authorities or UNHCR [the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees] for refugee processing.”
What they are not told is that, according to the National Immigration Forum, the process of applying for refugee status and getting into the US “has grown increasingly complicated…encompassing numerous government agencies, at least five separate information technology systems, and a trove of inscrutable acronyms…. UNHCR currently estimates the process from referral to resettlement…to take between two and 10 years.”
This heartless chasm between rhetoric and reality is not a recent occurrence. The United States has, for over a century, identified as and congratulated itself on being a nation of immigrants—while erecting nearly insurmountable barriers to refugees and asylum seekers, in particular those who are not considered white and do not worship Jesus.
A brief glance at the last major European refugee crisis makes this all too clear. In Germany at the end of World War II, 7 million to 10 million homeless, ill-clothed, malnourished or starving, diseased, and disoriented concentration, death, and labor camp survivors, POWs, and political prisoners wandered the roadways and haunted the town squares and marketplaces in search of food and shelter. American military forces took the lead in rounding them up, transporting them to assembly centers, and assisting in their repatriation. Among them, the Western Europeans, the Italians, and most of the Soviet citizens were happy to return home, but a million Eastern European refugees refused repatriation. They included Jews who had no homes, families, or communities to return to; non-Jewish Poles, Baltic nationals, and Ukrainians who refused to return to countries now destroyed by war and annexed or dominated by the Soviet Union; and Estonians, Latvians, Lithuanians, and Ukrainians who fled their homelands because they had collaborated with the German occupiers during the war and feared imprisonment, forced exile, or execution should they return home. By the fall of 1946, after an influx of Polish Jews who had survived the Nazi genocide by fleeing to the Soviet Union and had then returned to Poland, only to be forced out by virulent anti-Semitism and pogroms, the displaced persons population in Germany included upwards of 250,000 Holocaust survivors, nearly 500,000 non-Jewish Poles and Ukrainians, and 164,000 Estonians, Latvians, and Lithuanians.
The American government was generous then, as it is now, in providing humanitarian aid to these displaced persons—so long as they remained overseas—while denying them the possibility of temporary refuge, resettlement, or citizenship in the United States. The United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Authority, which Franklin Roosevelt had been instrumental in organizing in 1943, did all it could to persuade them to go home again. When they refused to do so, the UNRRA, under the leadership of former New York City mayor Fiorello La Guardia, organized what La Guardia called Operation Carrot, which offered displaced Polish people who agreed to return home bribes of 60 days of food rations and new clothing they could wear or sell on the black market in Poland.
As it became increasingly obvious that even sizable bribes were not going to persuade the approximately 1 million refugees in Germany to return to their former homelands, the United States and Great Britain took the lead in establishing the International Refugee Organization (IRO), which was charged with resettling the last million displaced persons outside of Germany. While American representatives encouraged the nations of the world to accept and resettle the refugees and provide them with work, Congress refused to pass legislation that would have offered them refuge in the United States. The only exception made was for several thousand Nazi collaborators and scientists who were handpicked by government and military officials and clandestinely transported to the United States to contribute to what would soon become the Cold War.
For the Jewish survivors, America’s refusal to open its gates was particularly cruel. Barred by the British from emigrating to Palestine—where many said they wished to go—and denied resettlement by IRO nations whose governments considered them too damaged, too clannish, too dangerous, and either incapable or unwilling to do the manual or farm work required of them, the Jewish survivors were marooned in quasi-captivity in displaced persons (DP) camps in Germany. The Truman administration, believing it could not get Congress to offer refuge or resettlement to any of the Jewish survivors, pressured the British to open Palestine to them. British Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin provoked controversy when he declared the obvious but unacceptable truth in June 1946: that the Americans were agitating for the British to “resettle 100,000 Jews in Palestine” because “they do not want too many of them in New York.”
The same was true of the non-Jewish Poles, Ukrainians, Latvians, Lithuanians, and Estonians. For three years, while they languished in DP camps in Germany, Congress refused to issue visas or provide refuge to any of the DPs, Jewish or Christian. In June 1948, after an extensive campaign spearheaded by Jewish activists, the nonsectarian pro-immigrant organizations they funded and staffed, the Catholic Church, and congressmen and senators whose constituents included large numbers of immigrants, the elected officials who had earlier opposed all DP immigration were finally persuaded to support the issuance of 200,000 visas, with preference given to Eastern European refugees from “annexed states”—the Baltic nations and that part of Ukraine that had once been Polish and was now Soviet—and Eastern European farmers. Regrettably (but given the history of US immigration policy, not surprisingly), the majority of congressmen who supported visas for non-Jewish DPs balked at including the Jewish ones, whom they disparaged as “people with an Oriental philosophy” (Senator James Eastland of Mississippi) who had “migrated and moved simply because they felt they could improve their economic condition” (Senator Chapman Revercomb of West Virginia) and entered the DP camps because they “do not want to work and will not work” (Congressman Eugene “Goober” Cox of Georgia), and who, having escaped from the Nazis by fleeing to the Soviet Union, had no doubt become Communist agents or sympathizers. According to the widely read syndicated columnist Drew Pearson, Revercomb, an architect of the legislation, had told colleagues on the Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration, which wrote the bill, that “we could solve this DP problem all right if we could work out some bill that would keep out the Jews.” And that is precisely what Congress did. The bill, passed by both houses in June 1948, provided special visas for 200,000 DPs but excluded 90 percent of the Jewish survivors in the German displaced persons camps.
President Truman publicly criticized the bill as being “flagrantly discriminatory. It mocks the American tradition of fair play.” He then signed it into law. Two years later, the law was amended to remove the restrictions on Jewish immigration, but by that time, after three to five years in camps in Germany, the vast majority of survivors, unwilling to spend a day more in Germany, had immigrated to the new state of Israel, some out of choice and others out of necessity.
The similarities between then and now are impossible to ignore. The US government in 2022 has been generous in sending dollars to assist the many millions of Ukrainian refugees who have fled, will flee, and may choose not to return to the devastated homeland where their neighbors have died, their cities have been leveled, their homes destroyed, and their children traumatized—but has pledged to offer refuge to only 100,000 of them. Still, this “welcome” to the Ukrainians, as tepid as it is, contrasts sharply with America’s ongoing cruel maltreatment and lockout of millions of non-Ukrainian, non-white, non-European, non-Christian asylum seekers, including the 75,000 Afghan refugees who were evacuated to the United States under “humanitarian parole” but were given no assurance that they would ever be granted permanent residence or a path to citizenship.
On March 3, the Department of Homeland Security “announced the designation of Ukraine for Temporary Protected Status (TPS).” Some 75,000 Ukrainian nationals who have been in the United States since March 1, including those who entered illegally and those whose visas have expired, will be permitted to remain and work here for at least 18 months.
Though the US/Mexican border will remain officially closed to asylum seekers until at least May 23 under Title 42—a Trump administration directive issued on March 20, 2020, and extended by the Biden administration—the Department of Homeland Security has authorized Customs and Border Protection officers to “except Ukrainian nationals at land border ports of entry from Title 42.” No such authorization has been issued for asylum seekers from anywhere else in the world.
“The disparate treatment is striking,” Erika Pinheiro of Al Otro Lado, a nonprofit that provides legal and humanitarian assistance at the border, told The Guardian. “The Europeans are treated like human beings and the Black and brown migrants are screamed at and told to get back, told to just go away, and others are sometimes told to wait.”
Senator Rick Scott and 13 of his Republican colleagues, in a letter protesting the Biden administration’s decision to rescind Title 42 on May 23 for all asylum seekers, notified DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas that any relaxation of such restrictive measures “threatens to overwhelm our already strained immigration system and…exacerbate a disastrous situation at our southern border.” Warning of an expected surge in illegal border crossings, the Republican senators—joined recently by a number of Democrats—wanted to know how the DHS planned to protect our borders: “Are you prepared to request that additional U.S. troops, including members of the National Guard, support border patrol agents in advance of this surge?”
The Republican senators’ letter might offer a clue as to why the Biden administration has been dragging its feet on admitting Ukrainian refugees, even though a majority of Americans are in favor of doing this and, given the current labor shortage, the American economy would benefit from an infusion of workers, skilled or unskilled. Could it be that the administration fears that its belated offer to resettle Ukrainian refugees will highlight the racial and religious prejudices that continue to inform our immigration policies? Or that relaxation of some of the more egregiously restrictive immigration laws for these white European Christians will stoke renewed agitation to do the same for refugees and asylum seekers from Africa, Central America, and elsewhere? Let’s hope so.
The American immigration system is broken and, more than that, a disgrace to the nation, its elected officials, and its people. What is required is a complete revamping of our laws and a comprehensive immigration policy based not on political expediency, falsehoods, and fears but on humanitarian concerns and the recognition that this is, has been, and should remain a nation of immigrants in fact rather than fantasy.
As Mark Hetfield of HIAS reminds us, “the fact that people are saying [the Ukrainian refugees] look like us…should not be held in their favor or against them….This is an unprecedented crisis, no matter what complexion Ukrainians have…. Anybody could be a refugee at any moment. And we have to show empathy no matter who they are…. Any one of us can be subject to this level of vulnerability, no matter where we are right now in society.”