The Volokh Conspiracy

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US and Canada Expand Admission of Ukrainian Refugees

But bureaucratic obstacles and other constraints might reduce the effectiveness of these policies. More needs to be done to open the door to Ukrainian refugees, and also to Russians fleeing Vladimir Putin's increasingly oppressive regime.


Ukrainian refugees. Przemsyl, Poland.


Russia's brutal invasion of Ukraine has created what may be the biggest refugee crisis since World War II. Over 3.5 million Ukrainians have fled the country, and that number is likely to continue to increase. Earlier today, the Biden Administration announced that it will accept some 100,000 Ukrainian refugees:

The Biden administration will announce plans to welcome 100,000 Ukrainian refugees and others affected by the Russian war on Ukraine, the Biden administration announced Thursday.

Not all will be admitted through the refugee program or during this fiscal year. A full range of pathways will be utilized, including humanitarian parole and immigrant or nonimmigrant visas.

This is a step in the right direction, as was the administration's earlier announcement granting "Temporary Protected Status" (TPS) to Ukrainians already in the United States, as of March 1. There is a strong case for admitting Ukrainian refugees on both moral and pragmatic grounds. I outlined it in some detail in my March 8 New York Times article on the subject (non-paywall version here).

But, with these kinds of policies, the devil is often in the details. At this point, it is not yet clear exactly how the administration plans to admit the 100,000 Ukrainians. But it is not a good sign that reports indicate many will be funneled through the ordinary refugee system, and will not be allowed to enter during the current fiscal year. Conventional refugee admissions are so backed up in bureaucratic sludge that the US had a record-low of just 11,145 such entrants during the 2021 fiscal year, despite Biden's increasing the refugee cap for the year to 62,500, above the very low level of 15,000 set by Trump. Biden should instead grant parole to arriving Ukrainians, which would enable them to enter into the US much faster. In addition, he should eliminate the 100,000 cap.

A statement issued by the White House indicates they will use "the full range of legal pathways, including the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program." But it's not clear, at this point, what that means.

Meanwhile, the Canadian government has adopted a more generous policy for Ukrainians fleeing the war, one which allows them stay in the country for up to 3 years (which can potentially be extended), and offers work permits, as well. This is similar to policies  adopted earlier by the European Union. One significant shortcoming of such policies is  their temporary nature. That impedes refugee assimilation and makes it harder for them find work, thereby also reducing their ability to contribute to the economy in destination countries.

A second limitation of the Canadian policy is that it requires applicants outside of Canada to submit "biometrics" (fingerprints). This might not seem like a big deal. But finding a properly certified fingerprinting facility while fleeing a war zone is likely to be difficult or impossible for many refugees. If Canadian authorities really believe the fingerprints are essential, why not collect them after the refugees arrive in Canada?

Obviously, most Ukrainian refugees are likely to stay in European countries closer to Ukraine. But the US and Canada have large Ukrainian diasporas and more open labor markets than most European countries there. As a result, these two countries may be better able to absorb refugees. And, as I describe in my NY Times article, Ukrainian (and Russian) immigrants could make major contributions to our economies, if only we give them the chance to do so.

Despite their limitations, The newly announced US and Canadian policies are steps in the right direction. But much more needs to be done. Among other things, we should also open our doors to the rapidly growing number of Russians fleeing Putin's increasingly repressive regime (see also here). Like with Ukrainian refugees, there is a strong case for accepting Russian migrants on a combination of moral, economic, and strategic grounds.

What of the argument that it's wrong to open our doors to Russians and Ukrainians, but not to refugees fleeing from war and oppression elsewhere? This point has some validity. I addressed it here:

Critics may worry that it would be unjust to open doors to Russians and Ukrainians but not to those fleeing other oppressive regimes. Several of the European nations now welcoming Ukrainians have been far more hostile to refugees from Africa and the Middle East. I have long advocated welcoming all fleeing oppression, regardless of their race, ethnicity or country of origin, including Syrian refugees and those fleeing China's cruel regime.

But the right way to achieve equity in this sphere is not by barring Russians and Ukrainians but by expanding migration rights for others. In the meantime, the best should not be the enemy of the good. We should seize this opportunity to simultaneously aid large numbers of victims of war and oppression and secure valuable strategic and economic advantages.

UPDATE: Reason's Fiona Harrigan makes some related points about the new US policy on Ukrainian refugees here.