Biden administration scrambles to deal with Russians trying to reach America

Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine has led a growing number of Russians to abandon their country and seek entry to America — leaving U.S. officials scrambling at embassies worldwide and even along the U.S.-Mexico border, according to a State Department cable obtained by POLITICO and interviews with U.S. officials, lawmakers and advocates.

Some lawmakers and activists are urging President Joe Biden to seize the moment and roll out a welcome mat for fleeing Russians. They argue that would send a powerful signal of U.S. generosity to ordinary Russians — some of whom could be threatened with treason for opposing the war — and undermine Vladimir Putin’s oppressive regime by accelerating brain drain from his country.

“For people in danger, for people who risk [their lives] for freedom, [the U.S. should be] really friendly, I think,” said Anatoly, the pseudonym for a Russian dissident political analyst who fled to Argentina with his wife and infant son and is seeking to reach America. The “U.S. needs a program for Russians who were repressed for their political position, especially in the case of this war.”

But the issue is politically sensitive, and — with the exception of one notable proposal aimed at Russian scientists — the Biden administration has yet to take any major steps to ease Russians’ path to the United States.

A senior administration official told POLITICO that the United States is exploring ways to increase Russians’ access to the U.S. refugee program, but the official declined to give details. At the same time, U.S. diplomats are effectively being warned to be extra careful in issuing tourist visas to Russians because they are more likely to overstay them due to the war, according to the April 26 cable obtained by POLITICO.

Hundreds of thousands of Russians — among them journalists, political dissidents and LGBTQ activists — are believed to have fled in recent months. Many have left because Putin has coupled his latest invasion of Ukraine, which he first attacked in 2014, with draconian new rules barring anti-war protests, censoring news media and limiting the work of civil society groups. Others are departing because they see no future in a country likely to be isolated and economically deprived for years due to international sanctions.

Many Russians who’ve left are unlikely to be able to return home while Putin is in power. At the same time, there’s a recognition among those Russians and their supporters that Ukrainians, whose cities are being leveled by the Kremlin’s airstrikes, face more dire straits.

“Not only do the Russians who left oppose Putin’s war and an increasingly authoritarian Russia, they have also been crystal clear that their sympathies are with the Ukrainian people, and they don’t for a second pretend that their plight is anything like theirs,” said Matthew Rojansky, president and CEO of The U.S. Russia Foundation.

Rep. Tom Malinowski (D-N.J.), a former senior State Department official who has introduced legislation aimed at helping Ukrainians eventually rebuild their country, argued that admitting Russians would be a boon to the United States in more ways than one. Many of the fleeing Russians are highly educated and would thrive in America, he noted.

“They happen to be the best and brightest people in Russia, with extraordinary skills and energy and resources,” Malinowski said. “We should absolutely be making Russia’s loss our gain by taking those people.”

Other lawmakers are more suspicious.

In an April 1 letter to Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, 20 Republican lawmakers said they had heard of an increase in the number of Russians crossing into the United States illegally, and they questioned whether the Biden administration was releasing them with minimal vetting.

“Releasing illegal aliens into our communities is a significant national security threat,” the lawmakers wrote in the letter, first reported by Fox News.

The ‘others’

It’s difficult to know exactly how many Russians have left their country since the Kremlin’s full-on invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24 — they are dispersed in Europe and beyond. OK Russians, a nonprofit Russian emigration organization, estimates that at least 300,000 Russians left the country by mid-March.

The State Department cable notes “reports of caseload surges at smaller, more isolated [diplomatic] posts due to apparent misperceptions among [Russian] applicants that visas may be easier to obtain in other countries.”

The Biden administration’s approach to Russians seeking to reach the United States has been patchy, caught up in everything from legal concerns to bureaucratic hurdles to confusing pandemic policies to the usual bitterness of partisan politics.

For example, former President Donald Trump’s effort to dismantle the U.S. refugee resettlement program — which turned that program from one with bipartisan backing into a partisan football — has affected the Biden administration’s approach to Russians, Ukrainians and others seeking to reach U.S. shores.

Thousands of Russians and Ukrainians have made it to the U.S.-Mexico border, where they’ve requested consideration for asylum in the United States. Multiple reports indicate that Ukrainians have had a far easier time than Russians — or other groups — being allowed onto U.S. soil.

Many of the people not permitted to enter the United States have been turned away under Title 42 — a public health measure that the administration has used due to the Covid-19 pandemic. The administration intends to stop using Title 42 soon, but it has faced political pushback from Republicans and moderate Democrats worried about a surge in migration.

Asked why Russians had a harder time than Ukrainians being allowed to cross the border, an official with the Department of Homeland Security pointed to Title 42, but insisted: “DHS continues to grant Title 42 exceptions to particularly vulnerable individuals of all nationalities for humanitarian reasons. All exceptions are made on a case-by-case basis.”

Anatoly is among the Russians who hope to reach America by crossing its southern border. He believes he and his family have a strong case for asylum: at the start of the war, he was elsewhere in Europe, and Russian security agents reached out to him, saying he needed to cooperate and fall in line with the Kremlin, or his son would grow up without a father, Anatoly said.

They appeared to be trying to lure him back to Russia, where his wife and son were, Anatoly said. A lawyer warned him that the government could accuse him of treason. He and his family decided to flee.

Now, though, he’s worried about dealing with Mexican and Argentine authorities. “If a criminal case is opened, Argentina can extradite me to Russia, so we need to move. I worry that Mexican authorities can deport me and my family on every stage of our trip,” Anatoly said.

The Biden administration recently said it would stop accepting Ukrainians without proper papers at the southern border because it was launching another program for them, called Uniting for Ukraine. That program seeks to bring some 100,000 people to America on a temporary basis, known as “humanitarian parole.”

While the administration has described Uniting for Ukraine as being for Ukrainian citizens “and others fleeing Russia’s aggression,” the fine print does not appear to include Russians broadly as part of the “others.” Rather, that phrase appears to refer to immediate relatives of Ukrainians, such as a spouse, who may not necessarily be Ukrainian.

The Biden administration has made at least one move suggesting it wants to take advantage of the Russian brain drain. In a funding proposal to Congress, the administration is calling for the elimination of some visa requirements for certain Russians in technical and scientific fields who wish to move to America.

The proposal targets “any Russian with a master’s or doctoral degree in science, technology, engineering, or mathematics, including but not limited to degrees relevant to [artificial intelligence], cybersecurity, semiconductors, and robotics,” according to background provided by the administration.

The goal is to “advance our national security by weakening Russia’s innovation base, while simultaneously strengthening our own,” the senior Biden administration official said.

A new ‘crucible’

For other Russians, however, the odds of reaching the United States appear to be falling, even if they show up at U.S. embassies far from the war zone.

The State Department cable was sent to all U.S. embassies and other diplomatic posts because of the widespread need for guidance on dealing with the growing number of Russians showing up to apply for visas.

The cable is carefully written — managing to be both vague and nuanced, as visa-related documents often are. The gist is that U.S. diplomats need to screen the applicants carefully and factor in the “shifting geopolitical landscape.”

In other words, does the Russian applying for a U.S. tourist visa in Senegal really intend to visit Disney World for a week or does he plan to stay in America for the foreseeable future? If the latter is likely, U.S. officials tend not to issue the visa.

The cable states at one point: “It is important to make a distinction between the Russian government and the Russian people.” It also says U.S. officials should, when appropriate, point Russians to refugee and humanitarian parole options in the country where they approach a U.S. embassy.

But the cable also points out that many Russians are leaving their country because of its crumbling economy, not because they want to take a few days off. International sanctions are projected to erase 15 years of economic gains in Russia.

“Though short-term effects have so far been lighter than expected, a gloomier longer-term economic forecast has made departure from Russia a more attractive prospect, especially for the middle class, the educated, and younger applicants,” the cable states. “Adjudicators should take this into account when evaluating individuals who may otherwise be qualified for nonimmigrant issuance.”

Asked about the cable, a State Department spokesperson said, “We do not comment on internal communications” but added, “We follow the applicable laws and regulations in adjudicating all visas, always prioritizing national security considerations.”

In theory, Russians who’ve reached another country could apply for refugee status through the United Nations, in the hopes that they might be funneled to the U.S. refugee resettlement program. That process, however, often takes years and is not always reliable, especially given Trump’s damage to the U.S. system.

Refugee advocates have urged Biden to more quickly rebuild and use the refugee resettlement program. But Biden aides have been swamped with processing more than 70,000 Afghans evacuated from Afghanistan last year and are now tackling the Ukraine crisis, which has led 5.5 million Ukrainians to leave their country.

The Afghans and the roughly 100,000 Ukrainians who will come through the Uniting for Ukraine program don’t technically count as refugees. On paper that means the U.S. refugee program has resettled fewer than 11,000 people so far this fiscal year despite having a goal of 125,000. Only 13 were Russians, according to U.S. government data.

Although the senior Biden administration official said the U.S. is looking at ways to increase Russians’ access to the refugee program, a different State Department spokesperson said: “We do not currently anticipate establishing a specific [U.S. refugee admissions] program for Russian nationals.” Neither official shared details about what exactly will be done for the Russians.

Krish O’Mara Vignarajah, president of the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, said that by rebuilding the refugee program and taking in more Russians, the United States “has an opportunity to juxtapose its humanitarian leadership against the blatant autocracy of the Putin regime.”

The U.S. refugee program “was forged in the crucible of the Cold War as a response to similar Soviet aggression,” she said. “And it is exactly the infrastructure we need to leverage to address this and future crises.”

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