The Volokh Conspiracy

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Biden Administration Takes Incremental Steps to Open Doors to Ukrainian and Russian Refugees

The new policies include private refugee sponsorship for Ukrainians, and a possible plan to facilitate visas for Russians with high-tech skills. But much more remains to be done.


The Russian-language sign in this image says "exit."

So far, the US government has taken only modest steps to open doors to the vast flood of Ukrainian refugees fleeing Vladimir Putin's brutal war of aggression, and virtually none at all to welcome Russians fleeing the Putin regime's increasing repression at home. In recent days, however, the Biden administration may be changing this. It has opened up private refugee sponsorship for Ukrainians, and is considering making it easier for Russian tech workers to get visas to come to the US. These are steps in the right direction. But they don't go nearly far enough.

As Reason immigration policy writer Fiona Harrigan explains, private refugee sponsorship can help Ukrainian refugees get around the sclerotic and severely backlogged government refugee resettlement system. But she also notes some important limitations of the program, including that the Ukrainians involved will only get two years of residency rights, and will not be automatically eligible for green cards, as refugees admitted through conventional processes are.

Meanwhile, Bloomberg reports that the Biden administration is considering easing visa requirements for Russians with high tech credentials:

The Biden administration has a plan to rob Vladimir Putin of some of his best innovators by waiving some visa requirements for highly educated Russians who want to come to the U.S., according to people familiar with the strategy.

One proposal, which the White House included in its latest supplemental request to Congress, is to drop the rule that Russian professionals applying for an employment-based visa must have a current employer.

It would apply to Russian citizens who have earned master's or doctoral degrees in science, technology, engineering or mathematics in the U.S. or abroad, the proposal states.

A spokesman for the National Security Council confirmed that the effort is meant to weaken Putin's high-tech resources in the near term and undercut Russia's innovation base over the long run -- as well as benefit the U.S. economy and national security.

Specifically, the Biden administration wants to make it easier for top-tier Russians with experience with semiconductors, space technology, cybersecurity, advanced manufacturing, advanced computing, nuclear engineering, artificial intelligence, missile propulsion technologies and other specialized scientific areas to move to the U.S.

As the Bloomberg article notes, since the outbreak of the Ukraine war, there has been a massive exodus of tech workers from Russia. Luring these people to the US could simultaneously benefit our economy, weaken Putin's war machine, and serve as a victory for the US in the war of ideas against Putin's authoritarian nationalism.

But the administration proposal described above seems severely limited. Among other things, it is confined to people with master's degrees or doctorates, and even then only those who got them outside of Russia (if I understand the reference to getting them "abroad" correctly). Obviously, many valuable Russian workers in tech and other industries either don't have graduate degrees at all or got them within Russia.

In addition, the proposal would only eliminate one obstacle to giving these people visas (the employer requirement), while leaving others in place. In my view, both moral and strategic considerations indicate the need for much broader openness to Russians fleeing Putin (as well as Ukrainians, of course).

Both private refugee sponsorship and visas for tech workers are policies that should be expanded beyond the specific cases of Russia and Ukraine. The former is an idea long advocated by refugee policy experts; it would do much to facilitate openness to refugees from around the world, while reducing associated government expenditures. Early in his administration, Biden even issued an executive order promoting private sponsorship, though little appears to have been accomplished as a result.

Similarly, there is good reason for a broader policy of facilitating migration of tech workers from abroad, especially—though by no means exclusive—those fleeing repressive regimes hostile to the US, such as China. As in the case of Russia, such migration simultaneously bolsters our economy, while weakening adversaries and advancing our cause in the war of ideas. Of course, migrants who currently lack high-tech credentials can also make major economic and social contributions.

Hopefully, the federal government will expand on these two useful, but so far modest initiatives.

For those interested, in a previous post, I outlined more fully my position on claims that policies favoring Ukrainian refugees are unjust, given the continued exclusion of many mostly non-white refugees fleeing comparable oppression and danger elsewhere.