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It's good that people want to support Ukrainian refugees
Let's take advantage of a chance to do something good
European countries are largely welcoming Ukrainian refugees with open arms. But it hasn’t escaped notice that many of these same countries were recently deeply skeptical of admitting refugees from Syria, and even now some are discriminating against those trying to flee from Ukraine who are not white.
This is a totally fair observation.
But when Joy-Ann Reid says “there is a lot of soul-searching we need to do in Western media about why some wars, and lives, seem to matter more than others, and why some refugees get the welcome mat, while others get the wall,” I worry about the double-edged sword of pointing out double standards. I don’t want people to think that they need to be less enthusiastic about welcoming Ukrainian refugees to demonstrate their anti-racist bona fides.
While there is clearly a racial dynamic at work in Europe right now, white migrants are not always automatically welcomed with open arms. The United Kingdom threw its whole political system and economy into tumult with Brexit specifically because of a huge national freakout about immigrants from eastern Europe. Friendliness to Ukrainian migrants is not something we should take for granted or sneer at. We should take advantage of it as a building block to make a broader case for more openness.
In “One Billion Americans,” I urge policymakers to look for pragmatic opportunities to open to immigrants that people may see as more similar, suggesting open borders with Canada and the nations of the Anglophone Caribbean as potential wins. Ukrainians right now have the world’s sympathy, in part because they’re white Christians, and in part because “the Russians as bad guys” is a script everyone is familiar and comfortable with. That’s a leverage point to get additional legal immigration approved and we should seize it — not least because if we do we’ll end up with a case study of the benefits of legal migration.
The Ukrainian refugee situation
The Russian attack on Ukraine has somewhat stalled out in front of the cities of Kyiv and Kharkiv, but they’ve seized a number of smaller towns and have laid siege to Mariupol as part of a largely successful offensive in the southeastern part of the country. Lots of people have fled the areas that are now under Russian control or being attacked by Russia, and of course plenty of people who are in population centers that aren’t yet under attack are nervous.
About two million people have already fled, of whom more than half are now in Poland. This is partly because Poland shares a large border with Ukraine, but also because the part of Moldova that borders Ukraine is Russia-aligned Transnistria, and the Ukrainian borders with Slovakia, Hungary, and Romania are in the Carpathian Mountains, making for a relatively unappealing route. And Poland, along with Russia itself, is the country to which Ukraine has the most historic, linguistic, and geopolitical ties.
The Polish government has been pretty firmly anti-immigrant and refugee-skeptical recently but is welcoming Ukrainians so far. That’s in part due to racial, religious, and cultural considerations, but also critically geopolitical ones.
Polish nationalism is strongly anti-Russian for historical reasons that I won’t belabor here, and over the past ten years, Poland (along with the three Baltic Republics) has urged the U.S., Germany, and others to take a harder line on Russia. The current situation is more or less exactly what Poland’s foreign policy has long wanted: the Russian military is bogged down in a country that is not Poland, and Poland’s NATO allies are all taking semi-costly actions to keep Russia weak and bogged down. In a truly ideal world, Poland would probably prefer that the bogging happen in Georgia or Finland or someplace further away, but this is pretty good. So they are stepping up on the refugee front, even though the government is, in general, not positively disposed to an influx of migrants.
Poland (which is getting EU money to help manage the flow of refugees and dispersing money to Ukrainians) says they need more money. But the refugee situation is somewhat complicated by Ukraine’s military posture. The Ukrainian government has decreed that men between the ages of 18 and 60 can’t leave the country because they want them to stay and fight.
This turns refugee assistance into, essentially, an extension of military aid. The outgoing population has a very high dependency ratio. There are lots of kids and elders, and the prime-age women in the group have lots of caretaking responsibilities. That leaves the remaining Ukrainian economy with fewer mouths to feed and more ability to focus all resources on the fighting. This is just to say that supporting refugees under these circumstances isn’t just humanitarian assistance; it’s also a form of military aid that helps Ukraine optimize its society for war.
The American situation
Meanwhile, the United States Department of Homeland Security has announced a policy of Temporary Protected Status for Ukrainians in the United States.
That means if you’re a Ukrainian who’s here as a tourist or on a student or work visa and your trip is supposed to end, you have permission to overstay and not be deported. That’s different legally from a refugee or asylum claim. And it’s also somewhat at odds with Ukrainian military policy. The idea of TPS is we allow people to overstay on the theory that it’s not safe to go home. But Ukraine wants prime-age men to be in the country and fight in the war. Indeed, even as refugees have poured out of the country, thousands of Ukrainian men who were working in the EU have returned home to join the military or the militia-like territorial defense forces.
Meanwhile, Mark Krikorian of the Center for Immigration Studies is mad because he doesn’t think TPS Ukrainians will ever be made to return home.
And it’s certainly been true in the past that once granted, TPS is often extended repeatedly. The exception was the Trump administration’s cancellation of TPS grants, many of which had been around for 10 years or more. Personally, I interpret the relatively low-key nature of those disputes as illustrating the fact that a lot of people really are fired up about “border security” more so than immigration per se. Genuine ideologues like Krikorian and Stephen Miller were upset about long-term TPSers, but very few normal people seemed to know or care about it at all.
Regardless, when it comes to TPS for Ukrainians, we are talking about a tiny number of people relative to the flow of refugees.
This would be a good time for some more workers
The U.S. should absolutely help Poland out with financial resources to deal with refugees. It’s one of the best ways to support the war effort. And especially for elderly Ukrainians or families with very young kids who basically need welfare, it’s cheaper to care for them in Poland where the cost of living is lower than in the United States.
But to the extent that there are prime-age Ukrainian refugee women who’d like to come work in the United States, we should absolutely allow and encourage that. Right now the American economy is hurting for a lack of labor supply as demand comes roaring out of the pandemic. We’ve got seven states (admittedly small ones) with unemployment rates below 3 percent, and a bunch more (including large states like Virginia, Wisconsin, Georgia, Virginia, and Florida) where it’s below 4 percent. One particularly prominent area of labor shortages is in the meatpacking industry which has traditionally been a very heavy employer of immigrant labor and has really been hurt by the late-Trump collapse in immigration that has not yet been reversed.
Where could refugees go? Well, I’d try to ask American families to volunteer to take people in (minimizing short-term housing burdens) and try to send them to the metro areas that are in yellow on this map.
Ideally, it might be nice to find a low-unemployment city that also has a large Ukrainian-American community. But the biggest Ukrainian-American populations are in New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, Detroit, Los Angeles, and Cleveland, all of which are red here. Sixth is Indianapolis, though. And there are lots of Ukrainian Orthodox parishes in the United States, from Atlanta and Boston to Madison and the suburbs of Charlottesville and Mountain Home, Arkansas.
More workers would be useful
Financial assistance to the Polish government and to Ukrainian refugees in Poland would be a form of foreign assistance, comparable to giving the Ukrainians more weapons.
But given the present economic circumstances in the United States — low unemployment, plenty of inflation, strong labor force participation for everyone except old people — bringing more prime-age Ukrainians into the labor force would be a huge win for the U.S., not just an act of charity. The ratio of job openings to unemployed people has fallen a little bit from its peak last winter. And God willing the Covid situation will continue to look better, which will give more older people the confidence that it’s safe to participate and further fill these holes.
But there are still a lot of jobs that employers are looking to fill.
And these openings exist across a really wide range of sectors. Some of this work requires specialized technical skills or English-language fluency or is in sectors like construction or mining that are normally dominated by men. But a lot of it is work that could plausibly be done by Ukrainian refugees with no particular credentials, especially in leisure and hospitality.
A lot of healthcare work does require specialized credentials, of course, but there’s also a large share of the sector that doesn’t. Nursing homes, for example, are hard-pressed to recruit staff for low-level positions these days. That’s extremely understandable as Covid-19 made nursing homes a very undesirable place to work, and then the strong labor market ensured that the people who would have previously accepted those jobs — which have never been glamorous or well-paid — have other options.
In PPP-adjusted terms, meanwhile, the United States has four to five times the GDP per capita of Ukraine. At market exchange rates, the average monthly salary in Ukraine seems to be about $500. So jobs that strike many Americans as undesirable could be plenty desirable for Ukrainians seeking safety.
“Now wait,” you’re going to say, “is this the neolibs admitting that immigration reduces wages after all?” But I think that just shows that people still haven’t gotten their heads out of the muck of a disastrously slow recovery from the Great Recession. In an inflationary, full employment economy you can’t generate prosperity for anyone by pushing up nominal wages in labor-intensive sectors of the economy. Nursing homes could absolutely address their staffing issues by offering higher pay. But they’d need to charge more. And more to the point, the workers they’d attract with higher pay would just be shifting over from other sectors. To actually have a more prosperous overall economy with higher real wages, we’d need more people producing more goods and services.
Ukrainians aren’t special
The punchline here is that while there are special circumstances around the war in Ukraine, there’s absolutely nothing special about the benefits of immigration to the American economy under the present geopolitical circumstances.
More workers mean more output, fewer supply constraints, and more growth. If we can identify politically sympathetic classes of people and let them into the country, we’ll benefit from that and they’ll serve as a powerful demonstration of the value of openness to migration.
The idea of chaos at the southern border, for example, alarms people a little bit more than it should on the merits. And beyond that, I think most people draw a distinction between fleeing a war to a directly adjacent country in hopes of returning soon after military victory and fleeing endemic violence, skipping past Mexico, and then making an asylum claim in the United States. But one good way to bring order to the southern border is to pair coercive enforcement measures there with opening more legitimate pathways for economic migrants. Given current economic circumstances in the United States, it should be relatively easy for a Central American person who’d like to come work in the United States to get permission to do so by asking permission at a nearby U.S. consulate and getting legal work papers. Instead, current law makes that nearly impossible, incentivizing these large, irregular flows and dubious asylum claims.
But we could use more workers, whether from Ukraine or elsewhere, and we should be seeking every politically viable possibility — absolutely including the unusual level of sympathy people seem to have for Ukrainians — to get it.