Reviews | US resettlement system can’t handle 100,000 Ukrainian refugees
From a moral and human rights perspective, the United States has a responsibility to welcome refugees and asylum seekers. But in recent years, for thousands of people seeking protection from war, crime, persecution or natural disasters, our woefully inadequate immigration and resettlement systems have resulted only in blocked support and broken promises.
After President Donald Trump drastically reduced the number of refugees allowed to enter the country – from 85,000 in 2016 to 18,000 in 2020 – President Biden raised the cap on admissions to an impressive 125,000 for 2022. But six months into the government’s fiscal year, we have accepted less than 9,000. At this rate, it is impossible to imagine fulfilling the administration’s recent promise to welcome 100,000 Ukrainians.
I visited Afghan families held for months in makeshift quarters on US military bases or in hotels, unable to work or send their children to school. Many of these refugees have recently worked and fought alongside the Americans in an attempt to rid their country of Taliban rule. Volunteers from the nonprofit Refugee School Network that I lead in Ohio and Georgia have successfully placed a handful of children from these families in local schools. But our efforts are no substitute for a compelling agenda to provide all refugee children with equal access to the education to which they are entitled under U.S. and international law.
Contrast this with the situation in Europe: schools there are opening their doors to Ukrainian children, and countries from Lithuania to Portugal are accelerating the placement of Ukrainian emigrants in response to labor shortages on the continent.
Consider also the heartwarming images from Poland of strollers lined up on border station platforms to welcome Ukrainian mothers and their newborn babies. And contrast that with the United States, where not too long ago we saw pictures of young children lined up in cages on the border with Mexico, the result of that country’s policy of forcibly separating migrant children from their families.
Biden’s election marked a shift from Trump’s draconian policies. And some applaud the president’s 2023 budget proposal to nearly triple funding for refugee and inbound assistance from 2021 levels. But lack of funds doesn’t appear to be to blame for the ineffectiveness of our resettlement program.
Military bases across the country have been turned into camps to accommodate the arrival of Afghans. A base officer at Fort Dix, NJ, where I met families desperate for resettlement assistance and placement, told me that in response to the influx of refugees, the base had spent millions dollars in gravel, so that the arrivals would not slip on the snow – a figure so inconceivable that one wonders if it was a bad joke. Regardless, conditions at the base were such that many of the approximately 2,400 school-aged children were walking around in flip-flops in December.
Just think what millions of dollars could do if applied to the real human needs of refugees. Imagine using those resources and time in the basics to educate students and better prepare them to enter American schools — or to provide job training for adults, so they can be matched with employers in their new communities.
As a refugee rights activist – and as a daughter and granddaughter of refugees – I have seen firsthand the value that refugees bring to businesses and communities when they have access to education, employment and basic human rights.
A report by immigration advocacy research group New American Economy shows that refugees are more mobile and enterprising than the rest of the US population, including other classes of immigrants. With more than $50 billion in purchasing power, refugees fuel economies and pay more than $20 billion in taxes each year to federal, state and local governments. In 9 of the 10 cities that resettled the most refugees per capita between 2006 and 2015, rates of violent crime and property crime declined, according to FBI statistics.
Refugees are also more likely than other immigrants to naturalize as US citizens. It is because those who arrive fleeing danger believe in the values of freedom and democracy. They should be welcomed with dignity and respect. Instead, if they are lucky enough to succeed here, we repay them with bureaucratic traffic jams rather than the tools they need to rebuild their lives.
It is time for the United States to fix its broken refugee resettlement system and once again deliver on the promise of American opportunity – to work, to receive an education, to contribute to society. The process must be more innovative and less bureaucratic. More compassionate and less heartless. In short: more American.