In a world that has gotten much smaller, how we treat migrants will play an outsize role in defining the influence of liberal democracies.
Vladimir Putin’s heinous attack on Ukraine has brought war to Europe’s doorstep. In the early stages of a humanitarian relief effort expected to cost billions of dollars, approximately 500,000 Ukrainians have sought refuge in neighboring nations. Whether or not the conflict crosses borders, it is clear a 21st century Cold War has begun at a time when we are seeing record numbers of people forcibly displaced across the globe.
Tens of thousands of Ukrainians will end up in nationalist countries such as Poland, Hungary or Austria. Countries that generously welcome Ukrainians after having recently barred refugees from the Middle East and beyond. Chancellor Karl Nehammer of Austria, for example, recently said, “It’s different in Ukraine than in countries like Afghanistan. We’re talking about neighborhood help.”
Poland’s deputy interior minister, Maciej Wąsik described Ukrainians as “real refugees” in need of help and that the Polish government “absolutely won’t say no to helping them, in line with the Geneva conventions.”
In light of the fact there are over 82 million forcibly displaced people in the world – not counting the Afghan evacuation, much less the crisis in Ukraine – this is an opportunity to learn from history and make for a better future.
As I describe in Crossing Borders: The Reconciliation of a Nation of Immigrants, realizing the United States was in a global fight between communism and democracy, President Eisenhower came to see immigration policy as part of a broader strategy for how the United States could extend its values across the world. On a parallel track, however, his administration deported some 1.3 million undocumented Mexicans via “Operation Wetback.”
One action a demonstration of the best of the United States; the other, a blot on our history.
In August 1953, the same month he put in motion plans for the mass deportation of Mexicans, Eisenhower signed the Refugee Relief Act to extend special visas above the nationality quotas defined by the 1952 McCarran-Walter Act. In his statement upon signing the act, Eisenhower said, “In enacting this legislation, we are giving a new chance in life to 214,000 fellow humans … It is a dramatic contrast to the tragic events taking place in East Germany and in other captive nations.”
Then, in November 1954, Eisenhower’s Attorney General Herbert Brownell Jr. addressed a naturalization ceremony at Ebbetts Field & Polo Grounds, “The fact that more than 48,000 of you would leave your homelands, your relatives, your old friends to join our brotherhood of liberty is living proof that America still stands before all the world as its greatest symbol of freedom.”
Speaking to the geopolitical fight of the time, Brownell said, “The leaders of the communist conspiracy would destroy the very concept of human dignity upon which this Nation is founded.” Brownell then announced policy changes that would facilitate the immigration process and experience. The goal was to ease “the final tension and uneasiness felt by so many in the last stage of their great journey.” The immigration system, Brownell realized, sent a message to the world with each interaction.
By May 1, 1957, the United States had welcomed 32,075 Hungarian refugees fleeing communism.
On the other hand, in June of 1954, Immigration and Nationality Services, then a part of the Justice Department, initiated “Operation Wetback,” disrupting hundreds of thousands of Mexican lives.
Eisenhower acted with the nation’s political interests in mind by resettling Hungarian refugees. But, as law professor and author César Cuauhtémoc García Hernández wrote, “The government’s sweeping promises of freedom didn’t insulate Mexicans or U.S. citizens of Mexican descent from various forms of discriminatory treatment in the West and Southwest.”
Eisenhower saw the Mexican laborer as a necessary, and expendable, part of capitalism, certainly not critical to his definition of democracy. Yet, he also believed our treatment of immigrants and refugees fleeing communism would strengthen the nation’s case for liberal democracies around the world.
As we enter a new Cold War fighting authoritarians in Russia and beyond, President Biden can emulate Eisenhower.
First of all, Biden should speak directly and forcefully to the situation facing displaced Ukrainians. As we saw during the Afghan evacuation crisis, the administration hesitates when it comes to a migration narrative. Our ability to help Ukrainian refugees is another opportunity for Americans to understand the critical value of our nation’s immigration system. J.D. Vance and his assorted apparatchiks are already claiming security resources should be spent on the U.S.-Mexico border and questioning protections for Ukrainian refugees. These voices must be marginalized.
Second, the administration should deploy the necessary financial resources, infrastructure and personnel to help process and care for Ukrainians leaving their country. Congress should act expeditiously to provide the financial resources necessary for both our troops and personnel, but also to international organizations and partner nations that share a border with Ukraine. The solidarity of nations neighboring Ukraine is less likely to waver if the U.S. helps bear the financial burden.
Third, should the region enter a prolonged conflict, as outlined by the Washington Post’s Catherine Rampell, the Biden administration should advance a range of policy measures to welcome and integrate Ukrainians into the United States. As noted by the Council on National Security and Immigration, these measures are smart security policy and the processes need to begin now.
Domestically, Biden should be better than Ike.
First, work with Congress to strike a compromise this year that addresses the legal status of Dreamers and farm workers, and secures the U.S.-Mexico border. There is growing support from conservative and moderate organizations for this approach.
Second, it is long past time the Biden administration ended the Title 42 restrictions that are pushing migrants back into the hands of the cartels. The administration should put in place the infrastructure necessary to process asylum cases in a timely fashion and secure the border with resources reached via bipartisan compromise on Dreamers and farm workers. Along the way making it clear that the U.S. will treat migrants humanely, while securing our nation. These are not mutually exclusive goals.
Of course, there is much more Biden can and should do domestically on immigration. But the fact is we are entering a difficult time in our history. And the president needs to help the public see immigrants and immigration as an asset, not a threat. Particularly given the outpouring of support for Afghan evacuees in communities across the country, the global commitment to welcome Ukrainian refugees, and the fact nearly 70% of Americans support a path to citizenship.
Eisenhower failed to see the Cold War as an opportunity to shift Americans’ perception of immigrants and immigration. Through an affirmative and inspirational posture on immigration, Biden, along with Democrats and Republicans in Congress, have an opportunity to reposition our democracy in the eyes of the world by welcoming refugees, and integrating immigrants who are contributing to our nation.
Yes, the world got smaller. In many ways, that is a good thing.