Editor’s Note: Mark Hetfield is the president and CEO of HIAS, the global Jewish nonprofit that protects refugees. The views expressed here are his. Read more opinion on CNN.
On Thursday, Vice President Kamala Harris met with Ukrainian refugees in Poland. Then, when asked by a reporter whether the United States would accept Ukrainian refugees here in the United States, she made no clear commitment to resettle any.
Harris, herself the daughter of immigrants, should reflect on the words of her predecessor, Al Gore, uttered nearly a quarter of a century ago.
In April 1999, some 600,000 Kosovar refugees fled Serbian attacks into neighboring countries. The United States rose to the occasion, joining NATO and European allies in protecting the Kosovars, including by evacuating them to safe havens.
That month, then-Vice President Al Gore announced on Ellis Island, “We will accept, on the American mainland, up to 20,000 of the hurting and homeless Kosovar refugees – those with close family ties in America, and those who are vulnerable. We will bring them here until they are able to return safely.”
I remember the day well. I watched it on CNN from a Georgetown University hospital room while waiting for my daughter to be born. I was worried that we were bringing her into a world where, despite over 50 years of repeating “never again,” genocide, ethnic cleansing and refugee crises were still issues facing the world. But I was proud that my daughter was being born in America, a country that welcomed refugees and stood up for what is right.
Today, I am heartbroken. According to United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, over 2.8 million refugees have fled Ukraine.
But this time, there has been no Ellis Island announcement, just Harris saying, “As we have said many times through our work collectively in the UN through NATO, we will support Poland in terms of the burden it is facing and our collective responsibility to ensure the safety and well-being of these refugees.”
In other words, Harris said America will support Ukrainian refugees staying in Europe.
The next morning, President Joe Biden was more welcoming, though cryptic, saying in a televised Roosevelt Room address, “And I will welcome the Ukrainian refugees. We should welcome them here with open arms if they need access…”
“If they need access”?
Two hours later, addressing the House Democratic Caucus Issues Conference in Philadelphia, Biden clarified – a little – by saying, “We’re going to welcome Ukrainian refugees with open arms if, in fact, they come all the way here.”
Biden was an original sponsor of the Refugee Act of 1980, which established the US refugee resettlement program. He must know that, according to the act, he alone has the authority to decide whether Ukrainian refugees will be allowed to “come all the way here.”
Words matter, actions matter. When it comes to refugees and leadership, the United States is falling short on both fronts. It is getting late, but the Biden-Harris administration still has an opportunity to demonstrate American leadership by welcoming refugees – instead of relying on Eastern Europe to shoulder that responsibility alone.
If Biden had given her the leeway, when Harris met with refugees in Poland, she could have demonstrated US leadership by taking action. Like Gore did, she could have promised Europe that the United States would also open its doors to refugees until it is safe for them to go home. Or Biden, the next day, could have said that he would personally make sure that Ukrainian refugees would be allowed to come “all the way here.”
The White House appears to be looking to Europe to lead on the Ukraine refugee crisis.
Indeed, Europe led the humanitarian response to the terrorization of Kosovo, taking in the vast majority of those refugees. The United States, back then, joined with Operation Provide Refuge and demonstrated that America also stood for welcoming refugees. Europe can lead again, but the United States can still contribute more than writing checks.
It’s not my place to advise on how the US should act to protect the courageous Ukrainian men and women who are fighting for their country against an invading nuclear superpower. I can, however, urge the US to welcome their parents, wives, sisters and children who flee Ukraine, hoping to return one day. Immediately reuniting these refugees with their family members in the US is the least we could do.
Let’s do it, as we did it in 1999.
We have done this in other cases, albeit not with the urgency seen in Macedonia and required for Ukraine. Iraqis with a pending family immigration petition have been entitled to apply for refugee status to the United States. And, after a series of natural disasters, Haitians with pending immigration petitions to reunite with family in the United States are allowed to wait here, with family, for their visa numbers to come up under a 2014 US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) initiative.
There are thousands of Ukrainians already registered with the US refugee program who have close family members here. Let them in. Don’t make them wait in limbo in Europe.
Some Ukrainians are attempting to transit through Mexico to the United States. They face the risk of being turned away under Title 42, a Trump-era policy that uses the pandemic as an excuse to deny entry at the border. Imagine if European countries used Covid-19 as an excuse to push Ukrainians back into a war zone? End Title 42. And end it for all asylum seekers, not just Ukrainians.
As we learned with Kosovo, the US government can move refugees fast when it has the political will to do so.
On Monday, Biden tweeted, “We will welcome Ukrainian refugees with open arms.” Now he must lead by example.
It is time to show the world once again that refugees are welcome in the United States.