As hundreds, or even thousands of Ukrainian refugees begin arriving in the United States from their war-wracked nation, Montanans have a prime viewpoint to see how crises have shattered the immigration debate.
“This country needs to rethink different ways of approaching growing problems with immigration,” attorney Susan Cohen said ahead of last week’s International Conference on Central and Southwest Asia at the University of Montana. “Being a world leader, that’s morally required.”
Cohen has specialized in immigration law and refugee policy since the 1980s. She now leads the Mintz law firm’s immigration practice in Boston, and helped found the American Immigration Lawyers Association. She gave a keynote address at the University of Montana’s 19th annual Asia conference on “Why They Flee: Viewing Asian Regimes Through an American Immigration Lens.”
People escaping war zones and collapsing societies may qualify for Temporary Protected Status to stay in the United States while their more long-term paperwork gets processed. Ukrainians qualified for that status about a week after Afghanistan refugees did. But the Afghans had been waiting almost eight months to reach that point, Cohen said, while the Ukrainians were cleared shortly after Russian troops started pouring over their border on Feb. 20.
Missoula has been a frequent landing spot for refugees, from Tibetans fleeing Chinese occupation in the 1960s to Hmong and Vietnamese after the end of the Vietnam War to Belarus, African and Afghani displaced persons in recent years.
“I don’t think we’ll ever be united on immigration policy,” Cohen said. “But it seems so selfish and short-sighted to say we can’t fit another several hundred thousand people into a country with 350 million. When the economic impact of immigration is understood properly, there’s no basis to reject them on claims they’re taking people’s jobs.”
Economic analyses gathered by the Council on Foreign Relations show major segments of the U.S. economy depend on immigrant labor for work that otherwise isn’t getting done. For example, when the COVID pandemic lockdowns severely limited border crossings, no East Coast crab fishermen lost jobs, but the price of crab meat jumped from $24.95 a pound to $42.
“Immigrants don’t compete for U.S. native jobs,” said Chad Sparber, an international economics expert from Colgate University. “Their impact is not on wages, but the prices of products.”
Cohen said how people feel about immigration policy gets tangled when refugees get thrown in the mix. While a migrant worker may pursue personal job goals when deciding to cross a border, someone fleeing an advancing army has little decision-making power.
That gets even more complicated when the refugee is abandoning cropland that’s failed due to drought or a countryside overrun by criminal gangs. International asylum law largely grew out of Europe at the end of World War II and the subsequent Cold War, when millions of people were homeless and their states were essentially wrecked or transformed to a hostile government.
Cohen said the result has been remarkably quick acceptance of Ukrainians running away from Russian conflict, but entrenched resistance to African and Middle Eastern people leaving their failing states. Poland, for example, absorbed a huge share of the estimated 4 million Ukrainian refugees, but built a wall to prevent Afghani refugees from entering after they had made it to neighboring Belarus.
“We need to reclaim our global leadership,” Cohen said. “We need to show we believe not just in the rule of law, but the principle of welcoming the stranger. It helps our country, helps our economy, and it reunites families. I think we can be more generous than we have been.”