Over the last decade, the slide from populism to nationalism to authoritarianism has been precipitous. Those pushing nations down this path have weaponized immigration to achieve their goals. With Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, an inflection point might be upon us as the conflict has already triggered a massive refugee crisis. As the world’s leading liberal democracy, America now has an opportunity to reject the anti-immigration message that the neo-right is pushing — and renew its commitment to fundamental liberal values by welcoming those displaced by this and other conflicts regardless of their nationality.
Hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians are seeking protection in nationalist countries such as Poland, Hungary or Austria. Although these countries are generously welcoming Ukrainians right now, they were barring refugees from the Middle East and beyond not too long ago. 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.”
But it might be wise to ignore this hypocrisy and build on this welcoming attitude toward Ukrainians. (After all, most hypocrites don’t change their ways because we call them hypocrites!) Given that 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 my upcoming book, Crossing Borders: The Reconciliation of a Nation of Immigrants, President Dwight Eisenhower’s immigration policy in the heyday of the Cold War was as schizophrenic as these European countries’ is now. On the one hand, he saw generous immigration policies as essential to his broader strategy of prevailing in the global fight between communism and democracy and showcasing U.S. values across the world. On a parallel track, however, his administration deported some 1.3 million undocumented Mexicans via “Operation Wetback.”