There is no indication that Trump’s relationship with Ukraine — which is at the center of his impeachment saga and an alleged quid pro quo involving military aid in exchange for pressure on a domestic political foe — has played a role in the rise in Ukrainian refugees admitted into the United States. But the demographic shift does appear to be the byproduct of Trump administration policies that have restricted access to the U.S. refugee program, experts said.
Trump has repeatedly stated his desire to block Muslim refugees and to prioritize persecuted Christians from around the world. And his administration has successfully implemented a travel ban and expanded vetting scrutiny for the nationals of several predominantly Muslim nationalities — a program that officials said could expand to bar people from additional countries this year.
The impact is clear: Though Syria, Afghanistan, South Sudan, Myanmar and Somalia drive more than two-thirds of the international refugee crisis, now numbering more than 26 million according to the United Nations, Ukrainians in 2019 outnumbered Syrian refugee arrivals in the United States 8 to 1. They outnumbered Afghans nearly 4 to 1, Sudanese 12 to 1 and Somalis 19 to 1.
“This is unprecedented, and it represents a shift away from the refugee program’s historical foundation, which is a needs-based, vulnerability-based program,” said Nazanin Ash, vice president of public policy and advocacy for the International Rescue Committee. “There has been a reordering of the nationalities, and not on the basis of need. The administration’s policies lock out many of the most vulnerable refugee populations.”
The 4,451 Ukrainians who arrived in the United States during fiscal 2019 made up 15 percent of the 30,000 total refugees who resettled in the country. In 2016, Ukrainians accounted for just 3 percent.
Ukraine has been engaged in a simmering conflict with Russia and Russian-backed proxies in a limited part of the country’s eastern region since 2014, but most Ukrainian refugees to the United States are not fleeing violence. Instead, they are coming to the United States for the opportunities it provides, taking advantage of a decades-old program that created a special pathway for nationals of the former Soviet Union.
Many of the newly arrived Ukrainians have ended up here in Washington state, near Seattle along Puget Sound. The area already is home to one of the largest Ukrainian immigrant communities in the country.
Ukrainian and Russian-speaking churches, grocery stores, construction companies and real estate agents have proliferated as the refugees have streamed here, sometimes arriving as 20-member extended families all at once. The Ukrainian Association of Washington has seen membership in its youth dance troupe swell to 30, and the University of Washington is offering Ukrainian language courses for its third year in a row.
Many decry the endemic corruption and lingering Communist-era bureaucracy back home. The poor pay, the shady politicians, the inertia. Their reasons for coming to the United States sound a lot like the reasons most people want to immigrate: Opportunity. But few say they experienced severe oppression or needed to flee death and devastation, as refugees from other countries often do.
“The Soviet Union has not existed for a long time, but the influence of the Soviet Union is still there, especially when we talk about free will for the people and opportunity for everybody,” explained Valentyna Ostapets, 36, who worked as a prosecutor in Ukraine and arrived in Washington as a refugee three years ago.
Vitaliy Tsinkevich, 51, who left behind a business in Ukraine to move to Washington with his family in 2003, said it plainly: “I wanted a better life for my kids.”
Now Tsinkevich owns a senior care home for elderly Ukrainians, is active in a Ukrainian church, and runs an outlet called the Diaspora Slavic Center that provides resources to new arrivals. The center is in an office block of other Ukrainian-owned businesses, including a free newspaper that supplies an ever-expanding index of Ukrainian and Russian-language medical assistance, lawyers and other services. A recent article explained the concept of the American Dream.
Trump has made slashing refugee resettlement a hallmark of his administration. While 85,000 refugees were resettled in the United States during the last fiscal year of the Obama administration, the Trump administration admitted fewer refugees in his first three years in office combined — 77,000. He has set the 2020 refugee cap at a historic low of 18,000, and advocates worry that the administration could admit far fewer.
Resettlement numbers for nearly all nationalities across the board — including Congo and Myanmar — have fallen during that time. But Ukrainian refugee arrivals have grown by 75 percent.
Ukrainians and other nationals of the former Soviet Union have been coming to the United States as refugees for the past three decades, most of them under an obscure law known as the Lautenberg Amendment, which Congress first passed in 1989 to provide refuge to religious minorities — particularly Jews.
Many refugee advocates consider the amendment anachronistic given the fall of Soviet communism, but Congress has repeatedly renewed the program. The Lautenberg Amendment, which allows for people in the United States to apply for refugee status on behalf of their relatives abroad, also carries a lower burden of proof for religious persecution than that set for other refugees. The law now mostly benefits Protestants who continue to experience discrimination in a region where the Orthodox church has forged strong alliances with those in power.
Unlike the predominantly Muslim refugees fleeing the wars in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, the Ukrainian refugees are overwhelmingly Pentecostal, Baptist and evangelical. Many also say they like Trump, their conservatism tending to ally with the Republican Party’s positions on abortion and gay rights.
“He stands for their conservative beliefs,” said Vita Noga, 23, Tsinkevich’s daughter, who was a child when her family left Ukraine. “I know Trump is against socialist health care, and I lived through it.”
A U.S. State Department spokesperson declined to comment on the growing influx of Ukrainian refugees, pointing to the department’s general position that the U.S. government is committed to advancing religious freedom and that the administration’s fiscal 2020 refugee policy includes a dedicated allocation for people who have suffered or fear religious persecution.
This year, for the first time in the history of the refugee program, slots will be allocated based on newly defined categories. As many as 5,000 — 28 percent — could go to Ukrainians, Russians and other nationals of the former Soviet republics, as the slots have been set aside for refugees facing religious persecution.
Trump in November invoked the Lautenberg Amendment when he issued the executive order that defined the new categories and lowered the overall refugee cap. He also set a new requirement that states and local governments must affirmatively request their desire to resettle refugees, a policy that is under federal court challenge. More than 40 governors have indicated they will allow refugees — only Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) has notified the Trump administration that he does not want more refugees settled in his state.
'Dreams do come true'
Washington state has long been a hub for new Ukrainian arrivals and has resettled more Ukrainians than any other state during the past decade. But the stream of refugees here used to be far more diverse — in the year before Trump took office, Washington took in hundreds of Iraqis, Somalis, Syrians and Iranians.
Last year, new arrivals among all four of those nationalities had diminished so significantly that they were outnumbered here by Ukrainians, who made up 71 percent of the state’s new refugees in 2019, and also by Russians, Belorussians and Moldovans, even though none of the three are in a state of war.
Mouammar Abouagila, who manages the Tacoma office of Lutheran Community Services Northwest, has watched the shrinking number of refugees allowed in from Middle East war zones with dismay.
When Abouagila, who is an asylum seeker and a Muslim, first started working in refugee resettlement in the Seattle area in 2015, he did most of his work with Iraqis. Many had fled harrowing circumstances at home, often after working with U.S. forces in Iraq, a choice that invited violence and death threats but also cleared the way for a special immigrant visa or resettlement as a refugee.
But in 2018, Abouagila said, “we served just one Iraqi client,” a man who had been working with the U.S. Army for seven years and applied with his wife for a special visa. “He came to the U.S. for three months, but his wife never got the visa. So he decided to go back to Iraq.”
Mykola Alieksieiev, who had served as a Pentecostal pastor in Ukraine, experienced a different turn of fortune because of U.S. policy. Alieksieiev, 62, was able to come to Washington state in 2016 with his wife, mother and two adult sons, along with their spouses and children.
Alieksieiev said his family was not exposed to violence in Ukraine, but he said circumstances were uncomfortable for Protestants, who were often subject to discriminatory treatment. He referenced the 2014 murders of four Pentecostals by Russian militants in the conflict zone.
“Ukraine is caught between Europe and Russia, and it’s unclear how it’s all going to end,” he said.
He has set up his own construction company in Washington state, and his other two adult children, along with their spouses and children, have been allowed to follow him to the United States. The four-generation extended family lives comfortably in four apartments within walking distance of one another.
“For many years, we were dreaming of coming to America. When I was 10, a lot of my Pentecostal friends were going to the U.S.,” said Alieksieiev’s daughter, Iryna Yaroshenko, 40. “Thirty years passed, and dreams do come true.”
Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly identified Mouammar Abouagila’s organization. He runs refugee resettlement for the Tacoma office of Lutheran Community Services Northwest.