The Ukrainian Refugee Crisis Is an Opportunity for America to Strengthen its Liberal Commitments
It should welcome fleeing Ukrainians and extend the same treatment to refugees of other nationalities, clearing Eisenhower's blot on its history
Over the last decade, the slide from populism to nationalism to authoritarianism has been precipitous. Those pushing nations down this path have weaponized immigration to achieve their goals. With Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, an inflection point might be upon us as the conflict has already triggered a massive refugee crisis. As the world’s leading liberal democracy, America now has an opportunity to reject the anti-immigration message that the neo-right is pushing — and renew its commitment to fundamental liberal values by welcoming those displaced by this and other conflicts regardless of their nationality.
Hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians are seeking protection in nationalist countries such as Poland, Hungary or Austria. Although these countries are generously welcoming Ukrainians right now, they were barring refugees from the Middle East and beyond not too long ago. Chancellor Karl Nehammer of Austria, who tried to prevent Afghan evacuees from entering the country, recently said, “It’s different in Ukraine than in countries like Afghanistan. We’re talking about neighborhood help.” Poland’s deputy interior minister, Maciej Wąsik, who resisted Belarus’ efforts to divert migrants across its borders, described Ukrainians as “real refugees” in need of help and declared that the Polish government “absolutely won’t say no to helping them, in line with the Geneva conventions.”
But it might be wise to ignore this hypocrisy and build on this welcoming attitude toward Ukrainians. (After all, most hypocrites don’t change their ways because we call them hypocrites!) Given that there are over 82 million forcibly displaced people in the world — not counting the Afghan evacuation, much less the crisis in Ukraine — this is an opportunity to learn from history and make for a better future.
As I describe in my upcoming book, Crossing Borders: The Reconciliation of a Nation of Immigrants, President Dwight Eisenhower’s immigration policy in the heyday of the Cold War was as schizophrenic as these European countries’ is now. On the one hand, he saw generous immigration policies as essential to his broader strategy of prevailing in the global fight between communism and democracy and showcasing U.S. values across the world. On a parallel track, however, his administration deported some 1.3 million undocumented Mexicans via “Operation Wetback.”
One action was a demonstration of the best of the United States; the other, a blot on our history.
In August 1953, the same month Eisenhower put in motion plans for the mass deportation of Mexicans, he signed the Refugee Relief Act to extend special visas above the nationality quotas allowed under immigration law at that time. “In enacting this legislation, we are giving a new chance in life to 214,000 fellow humans,” Eisenhower said when signing the act. “It is a dramatic contrast to the tragic events taking place in East Germany and in other captive nations.”
Then, in November 1954, Eisenhower’s Attorney General Herbert Brownell Jr. said at a naturalization ceremony at Ebbets Field & Polo Grounds: “The fact that more than 48,000 of you would leave your homelands, your relatives, your old friends to join our brotherhood of liberty is living proof that America still stands before all the world as its greatest symbol of freedom.”
Speaking to the geopolitical fight of the time, Brownell said, “The leaders of the communist conspiracy would destroy the very concept of human dignity upon which this Nation is founded.” Brownell then announced policy changes that would facilitate the immigration process and experience. The goal was to ease “the final tension and uneasiness felt by so many in the last stage of their great journey.” The immigration system, Brownell realized, sent a message to the world with each interaction.
By May 1, 1957, the United States had welcomed 32,075 Hungarian refugees fleeing communism.
On the other hand, in June of 1954, Immigration and Nationality Services, then a part of the Justice Department, initiated “Operation Wetback,” disrupting hundreds of thousands of Mexican lives.
Eisenhower acted with the nation’s political principles in mind when resettling Hungarian refugees. He believed our treatment of immigrants and refugees fleeing communism would strengthen the case for liberal democracy around the world. At the same time, he saw the Mexican laborer as an expendable part of capitalism — and certainly not critical to his definition of democracy. Law professor and author César Cuauhtémoc García Hernández wrote, “The government’s sweeping promises of freedom didn’t insulate Mexicans or U.S. citizens of Mexican descent from various forms of discriminatory treatment in the West and Southwest.”
As we potentially enter a new Cold War against Putin’s Russia and beyond, President Biden should jettison Eisenhower’s double standard and treat all immigrants the way he treated the Hungarians.
For starters, this will require ignoring hard-right voices such as those of author J.D. Vance, the Republican senatorial candidate from Ohio, and other assorted nativists who wish to seal America. They want to expend more resources to shut the U.S.-Mexico border and are already questioning protections for Ukrainian refugees. Biden should speak directly and forcefully and make the case that offering refuge to those fleeing Russian authoritarianism strengthens America’s own freedom.
But he should follow his words with action. The U.S. should offer financial and personnel assistance to international organizations processing fleeing Ukrainian refugees. He should also offer aid to countries that share a border with Ukraine and are therefore going to bear the brunt of absorbing the refugees. The solidarity of nations neighboring Ukraine is less likely to waver if the U.S. helps defray their financial burden.
Finally, should the region enter a prolonged conflict, the Biden administration should advance a range of policy measures to welcome and integrate Ukrainians into the United States.
A yet-to-be determined portion of the 1 million Ukrainians already in the United States are likely living on some sort of non-immigrant status. This means that they could be ejected back to their home country anytime. At the very minimum, the administration should move swiftly to grant Temporary Protected Status (TPS) or Deferred Enforced Departure (DED) to these individuals and their families. Established in 1990, TPS is a program that allows migrants whose home countries are considered unsafe the right to live and work in the United States for a temporary, but extendable, period of time. DED, likewise, allows certain individuals from designated countries and regions facing political or civil conflict or natural disaster to remain in the United States. While these measures would only provide short-term relief, at least Ukrainians in the U.S. would be spared the awful choice of staying on illegally or risking their lives by returning home under dangerous conditions.
To those stuck in Ukraine, the U.S. could extend P2 refugee status or humanitarian parole, as we recently did for some Afghan nationals. P2 refugee status is meant for specific groups that the Department of State, in conjunction with other national and international groups, has identified in need of resettlement. Humanitarian parole is granted either for “urgent humanitarian reasons” or because the entrance of an individual is determined to be a “significant public benefit” to the U.S.
But it is not enough to simply create these programs on paper. The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services is facing massive backlogs due to a combination of budget and staffing cuts from the Trump administration and the sheer volume of applications stuck in the system due to COVID-19. The system badly requires additional resources — personnel and infrastructure — to speedily process old and new applications if it is going to effectively stabilize and save lives.
Ultimately, however, if the conflict drags on, such band-aid measures aren’t going to be enough.
Besides those Ukrainians who come to the United States as refugees, none of the other groups are entitled to permanent resident status. Those here on TPS, DED or humanitarian parole can only stay in the U.S. on a temporary basis. The Biden administration might choose to renew their stay. But that will simply not give these folks enough security to build their lives, especially since future presidents could easily eliminate even these limited benefits, as the Trump administration did. Tens of thousands of Afghan allies who were evacuated to the U.S. last year under humanitarian parole are already in this situation. Therefore, President Biden should prod Congress to pass an Adjustment Act that would allow both Afghans and Ukrainians here on humanitarian parole to pursue a pathway to permanent legal status and, subsequently, U.S. citizenship, if they choose.
This is hardly unprecedented. Over the last 50 years, Adjustment Acts have been used many times to help those fleeing authoritarian regimes.
In 1966, Congress passed the Cuban Adjustment Act (CAA) that provided a pathway to work, authorization and legal permanent residency to hundreds of thousands of Cubans who fled the island after Fidel Castro came to power. Likewise, following the Vietnam War, Congress passed legislation to offer fleeing Southeast Asians a pathway to permanent residency — although, unlike in the case of the Cubans, it did so in a piecemeal fashion for different segments of the impacted population. Ditto for Iraqi nationals who fled after the First Gulf War.
Still, in each of these cases, initial protections, followed by the integration of these communities as American citizens, sent a powerful message to the world that the United States intended to be a safe haven for those fleeing authoritarian regimes. None of this is in the least bit radical. Ireland has gone so far as to lift all visa requirements for fleeing Ukrainians and the U.S. should consider these measures as merely a first step.
We might be on the cusp of a new Cold War and our immigration system can be a powerful tool to show the world what we stand for as a nation. Biden should follow in Eisenhower’s footsteps by extending a welcoming hand to Ukrainians displaced by Putin’s vicious action. But he can do Eisenhower one better by extending the same treatment to Afghans and other non-Europeans escaping conflict.
For generations, immigrants and refugees have been attracted to the U.S. for its freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want and freedom from fear. This global crisis is an opportunity to cement those freedoms in the eyes of the world, strengthen the vitality of our democracy and show those living under authoritarian regimes (or flirting with them) that there is a better way.