The United States has responded admirably to the Ukrainian refugee crisis. Just days after Russia invaded Ukraine, the Department of Homeland Security designated Temporary Protected Status (TPS) for Ukrainians already in the U.S., allowing Ukrainians who arrived prior to March 1 to stay and work for up to 18 months, regardless of immigration status. All deportations to Ukraine and surrounding countries were halted.
Weeks later, with Ukrainian pins on lapels in Congress and blue-and-yellow flags outside American homes and flooding social media feeds, the Biden administration declared that the U.S. would accept up to 100,000 Ukrainian refugees.
The Biden administration’s actions, taken less than a month after the invasion began, show that our nation is dedicated to aiding Ukrainians, and to playing its part in the international community. As of April 9, more than 4.5 million individuals have fled Ukraine. More than 6.5 million Ukrainians remain internally displaced. Bordering countries like Poland and Romania have accepted hundreds of thousands — if not millions — of refugees. Even if the U.S. accepting 100,000 Ukrainian refugees seems small by comparison, it shows the administration’s willingness to act quickly and morally.
Unfortunately, the American reaction to this crisis is the exception, not the norm. Routinely, the U.S. government has proven slow to act — if we act at all — when refugee crises emerge elsewhere, particularly in non-white, non-Christian, non-European countries.
Consider the American reaction to the Afghan refugee crisis. Since the Taliban captured Kabul in August 2021, more than 70,000 Afghan refugees fled to the United States and were granted temporary “humanitarian parole” status. Unlike “refugee” status, humanitarian parole status does not provide a pathway to stability and a green care. It limits the life refugees may live in America. It was also not until mid-March of this year — seven months after the crisis began — that the U.S. offered TPS to those Afghan refugees already here.
[The] U.S. government has proven slow to act -- if we act at all -- when refugee crises emerge elsewhere, particularly in non-white, non-Christian, non-European countries.
The American reaction to the crisis in Haiti represents an even starker failure of U.S. refugee policy. While Haiti has long suffered from political and economic instability, two events in 2021 dramatically worsened the situation: the assassination of Jovenel Moïse, Haiti’s president, in early July and a massive earthquake that killed 2,200 and injured 12,000 on August 14.
After multiple announcements, the U.S. issued its final declaration of TPS for Haitians on August 3, 2021 (granting TPS status only to Haitians currently in the country). This gave refugees little time to arrive in the U.S. after Moïse’s assassination, and did not apply to any that sought safety after the earthquake. Haitian refugees, however, continued to pursue safety. Many traveled through Mexico to seek entrance at the American border. In response, the Biden administration used the Trump-era Title 42 policy, which allows Customs and Border Protection (CBP) to expel migrants without considering their asylum claims. The Biden administration used this policy to expel countless Haitian refugees. Deportation flights of Haitian nationals continued in spite of the instability.
As the Biden administration’s treatment of Afghan and Haitian refugees demonstrates, the U.S. has a long way to go in treating refugees in a just, humanitarian way. At the same time, our response to Ukrainian refugees makes clear that we can aspire to be a humanitarian leader.
If those aspirations are real, the federal government must not only strengthen its refugee resettlement program, it must strive to make it more fair and equitable.
Four years of the Trump administration gutted the U.S. refugee resettlement program. It is currently dramatically under-resourced and overworked. Many organizations dedicated to refugee resettlement shrunk as a result of Trump-era policies, so even if President Biden seeks to accept more refugees, the infrastructure to aid them once they’re here is broken. The system must be reinforced and protected from the whims of a single administration.
To be a humanitarian leader, we might also work to right our inadequate actions. For Afghan refugees, Congress must pass the Afghan Adjustment Act. This policy would provide Afghan refugees in the U.S. a path to permanent residency. The Afghan Adjustment Act would help address the massive backlog of Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) and asylum applications, and prove more effective and humane than another temporary extension.
For Haitian refugees, it is paramount that the Biden administration stand by its recent decision to end the use of Title 42. Even though some state and federal officials have voiced concern about ending it, the deeply inhumane program must end, and migrants must be allowed their legal right to apply for asylum. The Biden administration must also issue a new TPS designation for Haitian refugees. A new designation would ensure recent arrivals from Haiti may live and work without fear of being returned to their home country.
The U.S. has an opportunity to build off of its strong response to the Ukrainian refugee crisis. Moving forward, these new policies and attitudes towards people seeking refuge should be the norm, not the exception.
Elizabeth Sweet is the executive director of the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy (MIRA) coalition. The MIRA coalition includes 130-plus organizational members, including grassroots community organizations, refugee resettlement agencies, providers of social, legal and health services, faith-based organizations and civil and human rights advocates.