Opinion: The U.S. resettlement system can’t handle 100,000 Ukrainian refugees

Apr 7, 2022

Luma Mufleh is the author of “Learning America: One Woman’s Fight for Educational Justice for Refugee Children” and the founder of Fugees Family, which aims to establish educational equity in refugee resettlement communities across the United States.

Here is a hard fact: If the United States is going to treat Ukrainian refugees the way it has treated those from places such as Afghanistan or Mexico, we shouldn’t offer to take them in.

From moral and human rights perspectives, 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 stalled support and broken promises.
After President Donald Trump significantly slashed the number of refugees allowed into the country — from 85,000 in 2016 to 18,000 in 2020 — President Biden has raised the cap on admissions to an impressive 125,000 for 2022. But six months into the government’s fiscal year, we have accepted fewer than 9,000. At that pace, it’s impossible to imagine we can keep the administration’s recent promise to welcome 100,000 Ukrainians.

I have visited Afghan families held for months in makeshift quarters on U.S. military bases or in hotels, unable to work or send their children to school. Many of these refugees recently worked with and fought alongside Americans to try to rid their country of Taliban rule. Volunteers with the nonprofit school network for refugees 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 cogent program to provide all refugee children equal access to the education to which they are entitled under U.S. and international law.

Compare that with the situation in Europe: Schools there are throwing open their doors to Ukrainian children, and countries from Lithuania to Portugal are fast-tracking job placement for Ukrainian emigres as an answer to the continent’s labor shortage.

Consider also the heartwarming images from Poland of strollers lined up on border train-station platforms to welcome Ukrainian mothers and their newborns. And contrast that with the United States, where not long ago we saw photos of small children lined up in cages at the border with Mexico, the result of this country’s policy of forcibly separating migrant children from their families.

Biden’s election signaled a shift away from the draconian policies of Trump. And some are cheering the president’s 2023 budget proposal to nearly triple funding for refugee and entrant assistance from the 2021 level. But a lack of funds does not seem to be the root of our resettlement program’s inefficacy.

Military bases around the country have been turned into camps to accommodate the arrival of Afghans. An officer at the base in Fort Dix, N.J., where I met families desperately awaiting resettlement assistance and job placement, told me that in response to the influx of refugees, the base had spent millions of dollars on gravel, so the arrivals wouldn’t slip on the snow — a figure so inconceivable that one wonders whether it was a bad joke. Regardless, conditions at the base were such that many of the approximately 2,400 school-age children there were walking around in flip-flops in December.

Just think what millions of dollars could do if applied to the actual human needs of refugees. Imagine using those resources and time at the bases to educate students and better prepare them to enter American schools — or to offer adults job training, so they could be matched with employers in their new communities.

As a refugee rights activist — and as the daughter and granddaughter of refugees — I have seen firsthand the value that refugees bring to businesses and communities when they’re given access to education, employment and basic human rights.

A report from the immigration advocacy research group New American Economy shows that refugees are more upwardly mobile and entrepreneurial than the rest of the U.S. population, including other categories of immigrants. With more than $50 billion in spending power, refugees fuel economies and pay upward of $20 billion in taxes to federal, state and local governments each year. In 9 of the 10 cities that resettled the most refugees per capita between 2006 and 2015, rates of both violent and property crime declined, according to FBI statistics.

Refugees are also more likely than other immigrants to naturalize as U.S. citizens. That’s because those who arrive fleeing danger believe in the values of freedom and democracy. They ought to be welcomed with dignity and respect. Instead, if they’re lucky enough to make it here, we repay them with bureaucratic logjams rather than the tools they need to rebuild their lives.

It’s time for the United States to fix its broken refugee resettlement system and once again live up to the promise of American opportunity — to work, to receive an education, to contribute to society. The process needs to be more innovative and less bureaucratic. More compassionate and less heartless. In short: more American.