There are 1.5 million Ukrainian refugees; the U.S. should offer to take at least 300,000

According to the UN, the Ukraine war has generated 1.5 million refugees, making it the “fastest growing refugee crisis since World War II.”  My bet is that there will be thousands and maybe millions more in the days to come.  While many Ukrainian refugees may want to stay in Europe – and Poland accepted a million of them – the U.S. should offer sanctuary for at least 300,000.

Although as I’ll explain a bit later, “immigrants” and “refugees” are legally different, the proposal nevertheless involves the fact that the U.S. is already in the midst of an immigration crisis.

That crisis is especailly pronounced at the southern border.  In October the New York Times reportedIllegal Border Crossings, Driven by Pandemic and Natural Disasters, Soar to Record High.”  In addition, about 76,000 Afghan refugees have recently been re-settled in the U.S.. Records indicate that overall an estimated 2.2 million immigrants relocated to the U.S. between October 2020 and November 2021.

Would Americans welcome them?

Prior to the Ukraine crisis the Gallup Poll showed only 9% of Americans wanted to increase immigration.  Although no poll since the Russian invasion has specifically addressed Ukranian refugees, surveys conducted since then showed overwhelming support for Ukraine, to include backing for no-fly zones and bans on imports of Russian oil – despite the economic impact.  As an expert put it:

“You see increasing willingness among the American public to pay costs for that support” of Ukraine, said Craig Kafura, a public opinion expert at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs.

I’m convinced that the vast majority of Americans would be enthusiastically welcoming.

Ukraninan refugees present a unique challenge

Of course, many people want to migrate to the U.S.(42 million from Latin America and the Caribbean alone), and lots of them have compelling cases to do so, including fleeing violence. 

However, virtually none have faced what the Ukrainians are now confronting: a brutal invasion by a military ranked second only to that of the U.S..  Furthermore, it is likely to get worse.  David French wrote in The Atlantic that Putin’s military may seek to recover from its early mistakes with increased brutality.”

There is another key difference, and this Washington Post headline says it all: With men fighting in Ukraine, women and children flee alone.  Unlike others, Ukrainians are standing and fighting their oppressors.  In short, the current situation is unique and unprecedented in the modern era, and it calls for a unique and unprecedented response.

Is the current legal architecture adequate to accommodate them?

It is important to appreciate that although the terms are often mixed, “immigrant” and “refugee” are different legal statuses.  As one source explains, an immigrant is someone who “chooses to resettle to another country, while a “refugee is someone who has been forced to flee his or her home country.”  Although in theory refugee status is temporary, getting it in the U.S. “isn’t easy.”

So what can be done under current law?  Professor Kate Evans of Duke Law’s immigration clinic advises:

I do think the definition of a refugee under U.S. law and the U.N. treaties on the status of refugees would recognize Ukrainians as refugees because they are being targeted because of their nationality and their government is unable to protect them.  Nationality is one of the five enumerated protected grounds in the statute and international instruments and I think this is why UNHCR [UN High Commission for Refugees] officials have been referring to Ukrainians as refugees.   

The US has designated Ukraine for temporary protected status which allows Ukrainians already in the U.S. to seek protection against deportation and permission to remain in the US for at least two years with work authorization. 

Because this crisis is different than the one facing Afghans or Central Americans, Ukrainians may end up applying for asylum in EU countries rather than needing to evacuate to the US.  The Biden Administration has set the number of refugees to be resettled in the US at 125,000 for FY22.   

As of the end of January 2022 we had only resettled about 4500 refugees.  The president has the authority to reallocate the regional caps for refugees and increase the designation for Europe.  He can also increase this number upon consultation with Congress, but ultimately without needing the approval of Congress. (8 USC 1157(b), (e)).

Although a case might be made that the President has discretion in this area, I am skeptical that the current legal architecture is adequate to accommodate Ukrainian refugees in the numbers I am recommending so special legislation may be required.  Consequently, Congress – or the President – or both need to act now.

Additionally: 50,000 scholarships

Even if the war ended today, it is obvious that Ukraine will need an enormous amount of help to recover.  Some of that will be material, but much of it involves human capital.

So here’s another recommendation: American colleges and universities ought to offer 50,000 scholarships to Ukrainians who want to study here.  They would have plenty of company: currently, there are “more than 1 million international students in the U.S. (about a third from China). 

Let’s find out what direction the moral compass of American higher education is pointing by asking them to fund the scholarships.

Not only will this create a cadre of educated Ukrainians to lead what we all hope will be a post-war renaissance of their country, it will also give perhaps millions of young Americans the opportunity to learn from other young people what freedom really means and why Ukrainians are so willing to lay down their lives for it.

And, yes, young Americans do need such an infusion of reality: a Harvard poll last fall showed Only 57 percent of 18-to-29 year-olds say that it’s ‘very important’ that the U.S. is a democracy.”  I believe that meeting some Ukranians will help change those very disturbing numbers.

Concluding thoughts

We can do this.  It will take plenty of money, lots of work, and real sacrifice.  Government, businesses, private organzations, and individual citizens will need to work together, but America can get it done.

And it needs to do it.  Mother Theresa famously said, “if you can’t feed 100, feed just one.”  That’s important to keep in mind since in significant ways the U.S., despite all the sanctions imposed, weapons transferred, and other measures taken against Russia, is still hamstrung in the things it can due in response to Russia’s aggression.

Notwithstanding the Ukrainian president’s impassioned plea, doing something like imposing a ‘no-fly zone’ carries a serious risk of a military confrontation with Russia that could put the world on the “brink of nuclear war.”  Even things that would seem obvious and easy to do like banning Russian oil imports are more complicated than they may seem.

But one thing the U.S. can do is welcome hundreds of thousands of Ukrainian refugees.  Yes, it will be costly, and every American may come to feel that cost through inflation, taxes, and more.  There will likely be favored projects and programs that will have to be delayed or shelved to fund this proposal (and to pay for the increased military budget the Russian invasion warrants).

So, we will surely pay a price in treasure, but the Ukrainians are paying it in blood. 

Most Ukrainian refugees, I believe, will want to eventually return to their country, but I also think that their presence among us for however long that might be, will be a valued–and needed–reminder that freedom isn’t free. 

It will also send the world a message of American leadership at a critical time. It shows that the U.S. is willing to do more than just write checks and ship weapons; its people want to be involved in helping the Ukranians who are suffering so much. 

Most importantly, it is the right thing to do.

Remember what we like to say on Lawfire®: gather the facts, examine the law, evaluate the arguments – and then decide for yourself!

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