The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Trump broke the immigration system. Biden won’t fix it. So Ukrainians suffer.

Ukrainians at the Palanca Border Gate, Ukraine on March 17. (Sedat Suna/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock (12853946f)
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For four years, Donald Trump sabotaged the U.S. immigration and refugee system. Over the past year, President Biden has done too little to repair the damage.

Now, amid the biggest European refugee crisis since World War II, Ukrainians and their allies are suffering the consequences.

More than 3 million Ukrainians have fled their homes in the past month, half of them children. They have mostly spilled into neighboring countries, such as Poland and Romania — nations with fewer resources than the United States to house and feed this sudden influx. U.S. officials have offered technical and financial assistance but have done little to actually absorb the displaced.

Instead, we’ve done pretty much the bare minimum — that is, we’ve allowed Ukrainians already here to stay longer. This is little comfort to families stuck in war-torn Ukraine, of course, or those who have fled with little more than the clothes on their backs.

The Biden administration has lots of options to help welcome some of these displaced Ukrainians, particularly those with U.S. ties.

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For instance, the government could expedite processing of all immigration applications from Ukrainians who’ve applied to join family or fill a job in the United States. It could fly in some of the thousands of Ukrainian refugees already in the official resettlement pipeline — a process that normally takes years — and let them finish the final steps of processing here. (We did something similar in 1999 for persecuted Kosovars.)

So far, the Biden administration appears reluctant to exercise options that would ease the burden on NATO allies. Exactly why is unclear, given bipartisan American support for receiving more Ukrainian refugees. One possibility is that the administration knows its capacity to quickly process immigrants was severely damaged in recent years — and that Biden has not done nearly enough to make it functional again.

To be clear: Biden inherited a mess of an immigration system. Trump and his underlings did everything they could to throw sand in the gears, making an already dysfunctional bureaucracy as cruel and Kafkaesque as possible. Demoralized immigration officers quit in droves. Mismanaged budgeting led to layoffs of contractors and huge delays in processing. The backlogs for relatively simple paperwork became (and remain) enormous.

Perhaps nowhere was more damage done than in the infrastructure to resettle refugees. After years of ultralow admission numbers, the network of nonprofits that receive and resettle refugees deteriorated. And then covid-19 created an excuse for Trump to essentially shut down refugee interviews and admissions altogether.

Biden took office promising to restore the United States’ moral leadership on immigration in general and refugees in particular. He has, however, dragged his feet on fulfilling commitments to reverse many of Trump’s worst immigration policies, including those relating to asylum seekers and refugees.

The Post's View: Biden promised to rebuild refugee admissions. He's on course to decimate them.

After months of unexplained delay, Biden eventually did raise the ceiling for refugee admissions — but fell far short of his stated target last fiscal year, and he is on track to do so again. The official target for refugee admissions for fiscal 2022 is 125,000; at the pace so far this fiscal year, we’ll admit fewer than 16,000. That’s barely more than the lowest level of refugee arrivals on record (a record notched last year — under Biden).

Meanwhile, thousands of Afghan allies have been trapped in legal limbo for months in military bases and camps abroad, because U.S. immigration officials haven’t been able to process their applications. With no progress on their cases, some have begun returning to Afghanistan, despite the dangers, to prevent family they left behind from starving. Those lucky enough to have already been “paroled” into the United States still have no pathway to permanent legal status.

Opinion: How quickly Biden has forgotten the Afghans

Given the U.S. government’s struggle to handle its existing immigration responsibilities, it’s perhaps understandable that Biden officials have been cautious about creating new programs for Ukrainians. But if we’re stretched too thin to assume responsibility for a few thousand Ukrainian refugees, how can much poorer, smaller neighboring countries easily absorb millions?

“The challenge we’re confronting pales in comparison to that Eastern Europe is confronting,” says Mark Hetfield, president of HIAS, a nonprofit refugee resettlement agency. At some point, an overwhelmed Europe might slam the door, he notes, as it did for Syrian refugees. This would create turmoil, stress and security vulnerabilities not only for stranded refugees but also for the societies they’re desperate to get into.

Including possibly ours. Already, Ukrainians and Russians are showing up at the U.S. southern border, because they know getting advance permission to enter could take years.

Trump’s xenophobic policies had consequences beyond the cruelty inflicted while he was in office. Ultimately, they hobbled our ability to provide aid during a humanitarian catastrophe and thereby protect our own national security interests. Now, Biden must not only respond to the current crisis but also repair our institutions so that we have greater capacity to deal with future ones.

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