Commentary on Political Economy

Tuesday, 8 March 2022

 

We Should Welcome Ukrainian Refugees. And Russians, Too.

A family of Ukrainian refugees at a train station in Przemysl, Poland, the closest city to the border crossing in Medyka.
A family of Ukrainian refugees at a train station in Przemysl, Poland, the closest city to the border crossing in Medyka.
Credit...Maciek Nabrdalik for The New York Times

Mr. Somin, the author of “Free to Move: Foot Voting, Migration and Political Freedom,” is a Russian Jewish immigrant with family roots in Russia and Ukraine.

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The United Nations reports that at least 1.5 million refugees have fled the fighting in Ukraine. Sadly, that figure is likely to grow.

To ease the suffering caused by Vladimir Putin’s invasion and strengthen our position against him, the United States should open its doors both to Ukrainian refugees fleeing the conflict and to Russians seeking to escape Mr. Putin’s tyranny.

There are several things we can do quickly: President Biden has taken a valuable first step by making Ukrainians in the United States eligible for temporary protected status, which will shield them from deportation and allow them to seek employment. But this measure applies only to those who arrived in the United States by March 1 and lasts only for 18 months (though that could be extended). He can also protect Ukrainian students in the United States by granting special student relief, which would make it easier for them to remain here. Further, he should grant parole status to newly arriving Ukrainian refugees, allowing them to remain in the United States.

The United States and European nations would do well to give Ukrainians unlimited access to job openings in their countries (without time limits). The United States in particular faces a labor shortage in many sectors that Ukrainian (and other) immigrants can help alleviate. Especially if the fighting in Ukraine continues for a long time or if Russia succeeds in occupying much of the country, many refugees will have to stay in the West indefinitely. In that event, access to employment will facilitate their assimilation to their new homes and enable them to make long-term contributions to our economies. To that end, the European Union would also do well to abolish or suspend its three-year limit on how long Ukrainian refugees can stay under its law.

In addition to taking in Ukrainian refugees, the United States and its allies should offer safe haven to Russians seeking to escape Mr. Putin’s oppressive regime. As the science writer and aerospace engineer Robert Zubrin explains, Russian emigration can help drain Mr. Putin’s “brains” by depriving his war machine of some of the scientific and technical expertise it relies on. Those people could instead help expand America’s scientific innovation and economic growth.

As Mr. Zubrin notes, Russian immigrants to the West are disproportionately represented in scientific and technological innovation. Many have been major contributors. Prominent examples include Sergey Brin (a co-founder of Google) and Igor Sikorsky (a pioneer of the helicopter).

Mr. Zubrin’s proposal is limited to Russian immigrants with technical expertise. But those with other skills are still valuable to Mr. Putin — and could be valuable contributors to Western economies. Immigrants of all backgrounds and skill levels make significant economic contributions. Moreover, many of the greatest immigrant innovators were people who arrived as children or did not have any special credentials at the time of entry.

For similar reasons, we should resist calls by some politicians to expel Russian students studying in the United States. To the contrary, the United States should grant them special student relief status and allow them to remain here after graduation if they wish. The more of them stay here, the more they contribute to the U.S. economy while depriving Mr. Putin of their services.

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We should also, as the economist Timur Kuran suggests, grant refuge to Russian troops who surrender. Such a policy would help undermine the already questionable morale and cohesion of Russia’s forces.

Expanded Russian emigration to the West would be a tremendous moral victory for the United States and other liberal democracies. During the Cold War, America welcomed refugees from the U.S.S.R., Cuba and other Communist nations in part for this very reason. I was one of the beneficiaries of this understanding. An open door to Russian immigrants would also be a powerful signal that we do not regard the people of Russia as our enemies — undercutting a pillar of Mr. Putin’s domestic propaganda.

Some might fear that letting Russians emigrate would siphon off those most opposed to the government, thus strengthening it. But such effects did not prevent growing opposition to Communism during the Soviet era or resistance to the Communist regime in Cuba. Indeed, evidence suggests that having a large diaspora in freer societies actually increases opposition to repression and corruption among those left behind, including by increasing the flow of ideas from democratic nations to autocratic ones. The United States may need to do security screening. But evidence indicates that espionage by Russian immigrants is very rare, and there is already extensive screening for anyone considered for access to classified information

Critics may worry that it would be unjust to open doors to Russians and Ukrainians but not to those fleeing other oppressive regimes. Several of the European nations now welcoming Ukrainians have been far more hostile to refugees from Africa and the Middle East. I have long advocated welcoming all fleeing oppression, regardless of their race, ethnicity or country of origin, including Syrian refugees and those fleeing China’s cruel regime.

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But the right way to achieve equity in this sphere is not by barring Russians and Ukrainians but by expanding migration rights for others. In the meantime, the best should not be the enemy of the good. We should seize this opportunity to simultaneously aid large numbers of victims of war and oppression and secure valuable strategic and economic advantages.

Ilya Somin is a law professor at George Mason University, an adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute and the author of “Free to Move: Foot Voting, Migration and Political Freedom.”

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