Our country’s immigration authorities have resumed deporting Russian asylum speakers — specifically, Russian men afraid of being drafted into the illegal war in Ukraine — back to their home country. This is unacceptable.
As Vladimir Putin’s Russia persecutes political dissent and sends its citizens to commit war crimes in Ukraine, Russians cannot make their voices heard by protesting or voting for an opposition candidate. They can, however, vote with their feet.
Can we claim to be the best country in the world if we are going to deport, detain and mistreat those fleeing war crimes? If we want to be a model for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness — and stick it to Putin — we should be welcoming Russian asylees with open arms, not kicking them out or subjecting them to the whirlpool of our current asylum system.
It’s no secret that our nation’s asylum system is fundamentally broken. Endless backlog, long wait times and excessive legal complexity make asylum cases unduly challenging. Words like “hope,” “relief,” and “freedom” mean nothing to asylees being denied due process.
Asylum cases can take years to be scheduled for an interview before an asylum officer. Meanwhile, applicants must wait six months after filing their application to obtain permission to work in the U.S. — meaning they must go this long without income to support their families. Many states, such as Alaska, make it incredibly difficult for immigrants, including lawfully present asylum applicants, to obtain something as basic as a driver’s license. Asylum applicants live in legal limbo while they wait for their cases to be adjudicated.
It doesn’t have to be this way. As Americans, we can lend a helping hand to these asylees.
First, the federal government should prioritize all Russian asylum cases, just as Congress called on them to do with cases from Afghanistan.
Next, we must immediately stop detaining Russian asylees at the border. The Biden administration must clarify that fear of being forced to commit war crimes is a valid reason for seeking asylum. All too often, passing an asylum interview at the border entails saying a set of “magic words” that only an immigration lawyer can figure out. This simple policy change and clarification would make the process easier, kinder, and more lawful for fleeing Russians.
Finally, our society, beyond the mandates of the federal government, needs to welcome those fleeing war crimes with open arms, not a closed door.
Our country is seeing a dismaying rise in anti-Russian sentiment. A recent letter in this very paper called for the Russian flag to be taken down from the city’s bus terminal. Russian businesses and brands are facing boycotts and discrimination. In one author’s home state of Texas, the state Legislature is considering a bill that would ban Russian citizens from attending public universities.
Our current approach could not be more misguided. Instead of blaming all 150 million Russians for the actions of their megalomaniac President, we should lead by example, and treat them as good people fleeing a tyrannical regime.
And if government leaders are so concerned about Russian asylees being a “security threat,” why not send them to Alaska? Labor shortages necessitate more people coming to our state, our climate is rather similar to Russia’s, and Alaskans can be more welcoming than recent letters to this paper may suggest.
Without swift action, this humanitarian crisis will press on, and Putin will have more fuel to add to his propaganda fire. As children of immigrants ourselves, we know that our country can be compassionate and strategic in welcoming those fleeing persecution. America’s position in the world hangs in the balance.
Claudia Tio-Cartagena is a master of public administration student at the University of Alaska Anchorage and a paralegal at an immigration law firm in Anchorage. Brian T. Nelson is a criminal defense attorney in Palmer.
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