Biden Gets a Chance to Get the Refugee Issue Right

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Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free. The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.  Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me.  I lift my lamp beside the gold door.” 

The words of Emma Lazarus on the Statue of Liberty.

Until the presidency of Donald Trump, the United States had more often than not played an historic role as a world leader in refugee admissions.  For decades, the United States resettled more refugees than all other countries combined.  About 3.5 million refugees have been admitted since 1975, when the words of Emma Lazarus on the Statue of Liberty meant something.  But Trump slashed refugee admissions to their lowest levels in decades, and destroyed the resettlement bureaucracy in the process.  Only several thousand refugees entered the United States during the four years of the Trump administration, and 6,600 in Biden’s first full year in office.

Unfortunately, the Biden administration initially followed Trump’s refugee foot-dragging in terms of vetting, screening, and approving refugees.  When Secretary of State Antony Blinken was asked two weeks ago whether any Ukrainian refugees will be brought to the United States, he said only that he would “look” into it.  When Vice President Kamala Harris was asked a similar question more recently, she merely looked to the President of Poland and remarked with laughter, “A friend in need is a friend indeed.”  It took domestic and international pressure before President Joe Biden announced that the United States would accept 100,000 Ukrainian refugees and others fleeing Russia’s war on Ukraine.  This is the least he could do after his administration thoroughly bungled the refugee situation on the way out of Afghanistan, and Russian President Vladimir Putin pursues his wanton and mindless destruction of Ukraine.

Although President Biden guaranteed that the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan would not be a “hasty rush to the exits,” and that we would withdraw “responsibly, deliberately, and safely,” there was particular chaos in dealing with Afghan refugees. The Congress had established a Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) program in 2009 to assist those Afghans who took considerable risk in aiding U.S. forces.  But the program was so cumbersome that it often took the help of immigration lawyers for qualified Afghans to deal with the bureaucratic hurdles.  The Obama and Trump administrations never granted half the number of visas sanctioned by the Congress and, according to George Packer writing in “The Atlantic,” the average wait time for an applicant as of 2019 was at least four years.  Tens of thousands of Afghans with links to the United States were left behind, and the vast majority of evacuees to the United States were given only temporary protective status, according to the Washington Post.

The arrival of 100,000 Ukrainians would be one of the largest resettlement operations in U.S. history, but would make only a small dent in view of the ten million displaced Ukrainians.  The Biden administration also announced last week that the 75,000 Ukrainians already in the United States on student, tourist, and business visas would be given temporary humanitarian protection from deportation, which will allow them to apply for work permits.

There are still obstacles, however.  At least 1,300 Ukrainians were taken into custody along the border with Mexico between November 1, 2021 and February 28, 2022.  Although Biden raised the number of refugees the United States would admit during the current fiscal year to 125,000, only 15,000 are projected to arrive due to processing backlogs and bureaucratic bungling.  Poland with a population of only 38 million has already taken in more than two million refugees.  (Poland also permits Western military weaponry to cross its territory for the Ukrainian military despite threats from Putin.) (Germany accepted one million refugees from the Middle East in 2015 during the worst days of the Syrian War.)

Ironically, there is one nation that has also mishandled the Ukrainian refugee crisis— Israel.  Foreign Minister Yair Lapid stated that Israel had a “moral duty” to take in more refugees, particularly non-Jewish refugees.  But Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Defense Minister Benny Gantz don’t feel that way, and their right-wing Minister of the Interior, Ayelet Shaked, has taken a hardline toward both Jewish and non-Jewish refugees from Ukraine.  Shaked announced that Israel would accept 5,000 non-Jewish refugees on a temporary basis, and would allow the 20,000 Ukrainian non-Jews in the country to stay only until the end of the fighting.  Other Israeli hardliners warned that acceptance of refugees would  “flood the state of Israel with gentiles.”

Last week, in a virtual address to the Israeli parliament, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky had to beg the Israelis to show more compassion, making the obvious comparison of the suffering of Ukraine to the Jewish people during the Holocaust.  Zelensky reminded the Israelis that Russia’s destruction of Ukraine was reminiscent of Nazi “destruction” of the Jews.

Instead of invoking “never again,” Bennett and Gantz moved to protect Israeli relations with Russia in order to maintain a free hand in their operations against Iranian forces in Syria.  Bennett is also trying to protect his relations with the ultra-Orthodox community, which opposed immigrants from Ethiopia and Sudan in the 19990s as well as Ukrainian immigrants today.  Several years ago, Bennett’s predecessor, Benjamin Netanyahu, denied requests from Ukraine and Estonia to purchase powerful spyware tools—the Pegasus system—in order to hack Russian mobile phones.  Israel willingly sold Pegasus to several authoritarian governments (including Hungary, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates) that use the spyware as a tool of domestic repression.  Israel also refused to sell its Iron Dome anti-missile system to Ukraine as well as other defensive systems, and has refused to impose economic sanctions on Russia.

The United States used to be much better in dealing with the resettlement of refugees.  Following the end of the Vietnam War, the United States resettled more the 130,000 Vietnamese refugees.  In 1999, the Clinton administration evacuated more than 20,000 Kosovar refugees out of Macedonia to the United States. There is no indication, however, that Biden is considering airlifting Ukrainians to the United States.  The Trump administration placed onerous restrictions on the asylum system and, as a result, there are more than 670,000 cases pending in various immigration courts.

Unlike the recent evacuation of Afghans, the Kosovars were adjudicated as refugees under U.S. law, giving them access to assistance, lawful residence and family reunification. Meanwhile, thousands of Afghans remain warehoused in American-run processing centers in Europe. The Afghans are without status, unable to apply for lawful permanent residence and have no right to reunite with spouses or children.  Congress for its part has yet to pass legislation to establish a pathway to lawful permanent residence and family reunification.  And I haven’t mentioned the nightmare faced by refugees from Central and South America. To paraphrase President Barack Obama, “this is not who we are.”  Or is it?

Originally posted on CounterPunch.

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