Biden is failing Ukrainian refugees

Czarek Sokolowski/The Associated Press
An elderly woman sits in a refugee center at the Global Expo, in Warsaw, Poland, Saturday, April 2, 2022. (AP Photo/Czarek Sokolowski)

The Biden administration is making a hash job of responding to the needs of Ukrainian refugees forced to flee Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war on their country.

We’ve all seen the images and know the high-level facts of the situation: approaching 11 million Ukrainians on the move, roughly a 60-40 split between those displaced from their homes but still trapped in Ukraine, and those who have been able to leave the country. This latter group — predominantly women, elderly and children — are overwhelmingly being taken in by neighboring European countries. Poland alone has taken in almost 3 million refugees to date.

In early March, President Biden proclaimed that the U.S. will welcome Ukrainians displaced by Putin’s unprovoked invasion “with open arms.” He promised to accept up to 100,000 Ukrainian refugees over an unspecified period of time. The announcement may have made for a good sound bite, but only if one didn’t compare that 100,000 figure against what Poland, Romania, Moldova and other countries had already received.

Biden administration talking points have emphasized that most Ukrainians want to stay nearby in Europe, so that it will be easier to return home after the war. While a convenient rationalization for why the U.S. didn’t commit to accepting more refugees, the unfortunate reality has become obvious: many Ukrainians will have no homes to which to return for years to come, as several cities and residential areas in Ukraine have been bombed into rubble. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) acknowledges a huge spike in Ukrainians requesting entry into the US, with more than 15,000 at the southern border alone over the last three months. They obviously don’t all want to stay in Europe — and many have family in the United States.

Other than taking credit for a “humanitarian response,” the administration didn’t lay out any plan at the time for how even this relatively small number of refugees was to be admitted. In an open letter to President Biden then, I suggested that, in contrast to the quick Pentagon action to enable weapons transfers to Ukraine, “the wheels of your government’s humanitarian response have sand stuck in the works.”

The administration only last week laid out its plan for these refugees going forward. It’s not impressive. The sand may have shifted slightly, but the gears of bureaucracy continue to grind slowly.

The plan takes effect on Monday, under the inspiring name of “Uniting for Ukraine.” In short, private individuals or organizations may commit to sponsor specific Ukrainian refugees, who will be allowed into the country under what is termed “humanitarian parole” for a temporary period. Other channels to apply to existing refugee programs or for tourist visas will remain in place.

While the plan might sound like a good addition and a laudable effort, the devil is really in the details. Only in the world of political spin could one applaud this effort as the innovative new program the administration is claiming it to be, given the scope and scale of this world crisis. Four quick realities reveal why:

1) This plan is neither timely nor equitable. Private citizens here in the States will have to self-identify as willing to sponsor, register with DHS and undergo financial capability and background screening to qualify. Only then can these qualified individuals or groups of individuals name which specific Ukrainian refugees they’d like to sponsor; Ukrainians cannot nominate themselves and the U.S. government will not lend a hand making connections or matchmaking refugees to potential sponsors. Refugees without existing relationships are left out of the process completely. If the specific match is approved, then the named refugees will need to go through a background and security screening process before any travel arrangements can be made. While on its face a reasonable approach, the process doesn’t suggest a speed which matches the need.

2) The plan allows the administration to wipe its hands of any support for the refugees once they are in the United States. The refugees will be the complete financial responsibility of the private individuals who are sponsoring them. As “humanitarian parolees,” they will not be eligible for any of the support that comes with acceptance through the existing U.S. refugee program, not even, say, Medicaid if they have need for medical treatment when they arrive.

The new arrivals aren’t immediately eligible to work (humanitarian parolees have to apply for a work permit and wait for the backlogged system) and weren’t able to escape with more than a few possessions. This will be the norm for most new arrivals under the “Uniting for Ukraine” system. Is this the best we can do?

3)The plan provides no meaningful stability for these innocent victims of Putin’s invasion. Humanitarian parolees aren’t eligible to apply for either permanent residency or the other U.S. refugee programs. Parole provides only a temporary respite, shorter than what it will take to rebuild Ukraine even to the point where they could entertain returning home.

(The administration took the same parole approach for most of the evacuees from Afghanistan last year. Did we learn nothing, or is this unwelcoming stance the point?)

4) This new plan strands thousands of Ukrainians who’ve already undertaken travel toward the U.S. border to try and gain acceptance into the country, many to unite with relatives already here. The administration announced that as of April 25, it will no longer admit even under humanitarian parole those who do not come through this “Uniting for Ukraine” program.

The administration is to be applauded for looking for additional solutions to the existing refugee and asylum processes, all of which are grotesquely backlogged, with waits measured in years.

That said, “Uniting for Ukraine” is a bureaucratic hash job. It endangers vulnerable people — particularly women, children and the elderly — and transfers the burden to private individuals for those lucky few fortunate enough to even get here. We all deserve better.

As a first and most basic step, the president should use his existing authority and admit these Ukrainians as the actual refugees they are, thereby making them eligible to access current refugee resettlement systems and support. This, in conjunction with the move to allow private sponsorship, would be a welcome innovation upon which a real humanitarian response could be built. Failing to do so is an inexplicable failure on the part of the administration.

Diane E. Batchik serves on the national board of Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service (LIRS), one of the nation’s largest refugee resettlement agencies. These views expressed are her own.

Tags Biden Immigration refugees Russia Russia-Ukraine conflict Ukraine Ukraine refugees Vladimir Putin

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