Over 2 million Ukrainians – including 1 million children – are now refugees. A number certain to grow in the days ahead.
Meanwhile, a fringe element of the Republican party votes to withhold aid from Ukraine “until Biden finishes the border wall.” Of course, that follows in the rhetorical footsteps of President Trump, Tucker Carlson, J.D. Vance and others. So, maybe that isn’t so fringe.
Around the world, right-wing politicians have idolized Putin “as a defender of closed borders, Christian conservatism and bare-chested machismo in an era of liberal identity politics and Western globalization.” The New York Times’ Jason Horowitz put it well: “Fawning over him was a core part of the populist playbook.”
These days, Putin’s acolytes have gone silent or are, gingerly, backstepping. Yet I would disagree with Lucio Caracciolo, the editor of the Italian geopolitical magazine Limes, who told Horowitz, that Putin’s aggressions, “will be a decisive blow to them.”
“Over the last decade,” I wrote for The UnPopulist last week, “the slide from populism to nationalism to authoritarianism has been precipitous. Those pushing nations down this path have weaponized immigration to achieve their goals.” They will be back.
Because even though hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians are seeking protection in nationalist countries such as Poland, Hungary or Austria, just months ago these countries were barring refugees from the Middle East and beyond.
Chancellor Karl Nehammer of Austria, who tried to prevent Afghan evacuees from entering the country, 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, who resisted Belarus’ efforts to divert migrants across its borders, described Ukrainians as “real refugees” in need of help and declared that the Polish government “absolutely won’t say no to helping them, in line with the Geneva conventions.”
While it is vital to support these efforts to settle Ukrainians, we should not operate under the assumptions these countries – much less authoritarians forces around the world – have changed their ways. The underlying conditions of the migration debate remain the same. Which means liberal democracies remain under attack.
In his 1939 essay, “Creative Democracy – The Task Before Us,” John Dewey wrote, “The present state of the world is more than a reminder that we have now to put forth every energy of our own to prove worthy of our heritage. It is a challenge to do for the critical and complex conditions of today what the men of an earlier day did for simpler conditions.”
At 80 years old, witnessing the rise of Nazism, Dewey saw that, “Democracy is a way of personal life controlled not merely by faith in human nature in general but by faith in the capacity of human beings for intelligent judgment and action if proper conditions are furnished.”
The conditions for a vibrant, thriving democracy are corroding before our eyes. The global response to Russia’s attack on Ukraine is a glimmer of hope. But, if we are to emerge from this horrendous crisis stronger, our response needs to include a renewed commitment to humane and secure immigration systems that treat all people fairly.
It begins with language. As Axios points out, “Subconscious biases against non-white refugees have surfaced amid the flood of news coverage.” Which only paves the way for Poland, Hungary, Austria and politicians of their ilk worldwide to return to their anti-refugee ways.
Trevor Noah put it best, “I think rather than this being a moment to turn on each other this refugee crisis should be a reminder that ‘refugee’ is not a synonym for ‘brown person.’ Anyone could become a refugee, it’s a thing that happens to you. It’s not who you are.”
I was in the audience when Elder Patrick Kearon, a General Authority Seventy of the LDS Church, told tens of thousands of Mormons during General Conference in the Spring of 2016, “Being a refugee may be a defining moment in the lives of those who are refugees, but being a refugee does not define them… This moment does not define them, but our response will help define us.”
So, Congressional rubles, I mean rubes, aside, we need to ensure UNHCR, partner organizations, and countries in the region have the necessary resources to resettle Ukrainians.
Domestically, whether or not Ukrainian refugees come to the U.S. in large numbers, the crisis underscores the need to expand our refugee resettlement programs and begin to reform our immigration system. Opponents to immigration will not let death and displacement at the hands of Putin stand in the way of their goals. In fact, Breitbart News is already framing advocacy for Ukrainian refugees as, “mass migration lobby, with deep financial ties to billionaire George Soros.”
President Biden seemed to realize the need for a recentering of the immigration message when he led off the immigration passage of Tuesday’s State of the Union with, “Folks, if we are to advance liberty and justice, we need to secure our border and fix the immigration system.”
Punchbowl News saw that, “If you were looking for a pivot to the center, you found it right there.”
The day after the president’s speech, over 30 organizations, ranging from Americans for Prosperity to the National Association of Evangelicals to the Business Roundtable and US Chamber of Commerce, launched the Alliance for a New Immigration Consensus.
Which came on the heels of new polling that found 76% of Republicans and 81% of white evangelical Protestants support Democrats and Republicans working together to secure our border and protect Dreamers, farm workers and temporary protected status recipients. Furthermore, 65% of Republicans felt Democrats and Republicans should act on these reforms before the midterm elections.
Then, on Thursday, Americans for Prosperity and the Libre Initiative announced a seven-figure Stronger U.S. campaign that includes digital ads, events, and mailers in support of congressional action on solutions addressing “security at our border, the uncertainty for our Dreamers, and the economic and workforce situation in our agricultural industry.”
As I told CBS News, “We are beginning to see the broad swath of the American public say, ‘You know what? Now is the time for Republicans and Democrats to work together to address just one small part of the immigration challenges we face as a nation.”
And, in an op-ed for Newsweek this morning, Bishop Mario Dorsonville, chair of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Migration; Walter Kim, president of the National Association of Evangelicals; and Ed Litton, president of the Southern Baptist Convention, write, “Despite our disagreements on how to interpret the scriptures—and even what texts are canonical—we agree that immigrants are made in God’s image and worthy of respect.” Even though the nation is divided, “addressing our nation’s long-dysfunctional immigration policies can be a unique way to heal division.”
But, why now?
Well, the conditions are changing.
Republicans and Democrats are working together on the Electoral Count Act, sexual harassment legislation China competitiveness, not to mention the response to Russia. It would be irresponsible for us not to try and change the conditions on immigration.
And if this horrendous war in Ukraine helps Americans to see why our immigration and refugee systems are important – less than six months after the evacuation from Afghanistan underscored how broken these systems are – we should act. Our border will be more secure, refugees will be protected, immigrants will own the American dream as citizens, and our democracy will be stronger.