The Volokh Conspiracy

Mostly law professors | Sometimes contrarian | Often libertarian | Always independent


US Accepted 271,000 Ukrainians Over the Last Year—But Can Do Much Better

It's an impressive achievement. But we can do much more. Canada's much greater openness to immigration is an indication of what's possible.


Ukrainian refugees. Przemsyl, Poland.


Over the last year, the United States has accepted some 271,000 Ukrainians fleeing Vladimir Putin's brutal invasion. As Reason immigration expert Fiona Harrigan points out in a recent article, this is a very impressive figure. As she notes, some 117,000 entered through the innovative Uniting for Ukraine private sponsorship program, and the rest by other means. To give some context, pre-pandemic the total annual amount of net legal migration in to the US was about 1 million per year (a figure only recently regained in fiscal year 2022). Thus, the Ukrainian influx is about a 25% increase from pre-pandemic "normal" migration levels.

On top of that, in January, the Biden Administration expanded the Uniting for Ukraine private sponsorship system to include migrants from four Latin American nations. By mid-February, this resulted in 36,500 new migrants from these countries entering the US, and another 24,000 getting authorization.

This sudden large increase in migration has not resulted in any of the harms predicted by immigration restrictionists, such as dangerous culture-clash, violence, or significant added burdens to the welfare state. To the contrary, most of the Ukrainians and others are on their way to becoming productive members of society. By letting in these people, we saved hundreds of thousands from war, poverty, and oppression, while also bolstering our economy, and America's image in the international war of ideas against authoritarians like Russia's Vladimir Putin.

But, as Harrigan explains, the US can do a lot better. The approach taken with Ukrainians (and a few others) can be expanded to more groups. To the extent it is unfair that Ukrainians are getting access denied to many others fleeing comparable evil elsewhere, the appropriate solution is "leveling up." That especially applies to Russians fleeing Vladimir Putin's increasingly repressive regime, to whom the US has been far less welcoming.

Some indication of what is possible comes from Canada, the nation usually considered most similar to the US. During roughly the same period in which the US took in 271,000 Ukrainians, Canada admitted 132,000. The Canadian population (about 39 million) is a little over one-ninth the size of the US (some 334 million). On a per capita basis, Canada has admitted some four times more Ukrainians than we have.

The same is true of Canadian immigration generally. During the 2021-22 fiscal year, Canada admitted over 430,000 immigrants in total. Next year, the government plans to take 465,000, rising to 500,000 by 2025.  Canada's current immigration level is the per capita equivalent of the US admitting some 3.8 million people per year. The figure of 500,000 is comparable to the US admitting almost 4.3 million. Estimates of illegal migration into the US (which is obviously greater than into Canada) vary, but are nowhere near great enough to offset this huge difference, especially when you factor in that many illegal migrants are denied entry or deported.

While these migration targets came under the Liberal Party government led by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, their main opponents—the Conservatives—have not opposed them. Conservative Party leader Pierre Poilievre has put forward proposals to make it easier for immigrants to get job licenses and housing.

Perhaps more to the point, Canada, too, hasn't suffered anything like the adverse consequences posited by restrictionists. That doesn't by itself prove the US can adopt a full "open borders" policy. The latter requires a more extensive defense. But it does strongly suggest we can have much higher immigration levels than we do now.

One can argue that Canada (which is much less densely populated than the US) has more space for additional migrants. But this overlooks the reality that 90% of Canadians live within 100 miles of the US border, and that is where most immigrants settle, as well. For obvious reasons, few people want to live in the Arctic climate of Canada's northern regions.

The purely political obstacles to increased immigration are obviously much greater in the US than in Canada, as can be seen from the very different stances of the political right in the two countries. But Canada's record does undercut many standard policy objections, and shows what is potentially possible for us.

Meanwhile, many of the new immigrants brought in under Uniting for Ukraine and other similar policies may lose their rights to work and residency in the US unless Congress and the White House act to give them permanent status. The expansion of the Uniting for Ukraine model to include four additional countries faces a lawsuit brought by various GOP-controlled state governments. While the lawsuit is based on weak arguments, it could potentially prevail—at least initially—with a sympathetic district judge. That issue, too, can potentially be fixed by legislation, though I am not optimistic it will happen.

In sum, America's recent openness to Ukrainians fleeing is a major step in the right direction. But we can and should do much better.