The World

The Maddening Tale of Russian Refugees at the U.S. Border

This could become a big problem for President Biden.

Hooded people exhaling cold breaths in a darkened field.
Refugees of the Russian war in Ukraine at a border checkpoint in Medyka, Poland, March 1, 2022. REUTERS/Kai Pfaffenbach

A foreign policy disaster is looming along the southern U.S. border, involving the treatment of asylum applicants—not from various South American trouble spots this time, but rather from Vladimir Putin’s Russia.

The appalling details are spelled out in a front-page story by Miriam Jordan in Tuesday’s New York Times. It’s about a married couple, Mariia Shemiatina and Boris Shevchuk, both practicing physicians in Russia, who faced arrest for posting criticisms of Putin’s war in Ukraine. They fled to Mexico, drove to a U.S. port of entry, turned over their passports, requested asylum—and found themselves handcuffed, shackled, sent to separate immigration detention centers, treated horribly by guards, and hit up by a judge for a $30,000 bond as a condition for their release.

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Their story had a happy ending: A lawyer got the bond reduced to $10,000 and raised the money to pay it from donors, who also found the couple a place to stay. But the tale, the Times tells us, is not unusual.

Putin’s invasion of Ukraine this past February, and his subsequent crackdown on all critics, unleashed a massive exodus. This year, over 21,000 Russians have applied for asylum in the U.S.—up from a mere 467 in 2020. Most of the freedom-seekers wind up in “cold, windowless” detention centers for months, without access to lawyers or to their own possessions, including laptops or cellphones holding evidence of their political persecution back home. These items are crucial to their cases for asylum, but guards confiscate them.

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“I came to realize,” Shevchuk told the Times, “that I had left Russia for a place that was just like Russia.”

This is the acrid catastrophe smoldering in the dungeons run by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The case of the two doctors and many other all-too-similar cases are appalling not just on their own standing but for the image of America that they broadcast to the rest of the world.

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President Biden has frequently portrayed international politics as a competition between democracy and authoritarianism, seeing the main task of U.S. foreign policy as proving that American democracy can solve “big problems” and provide a better life for its citizens. “That’s what’s at stake here,” he said at a press conference in March 2021. “We have to demonstrate that democracies work.” At a NATO conference the next day, Secretary of State Antony Blinken elaborated on the point: “If we stand up for the free and open system that we know provides the best conditions for human ingenuity, dignity, and connection—we’re confident that we can outcompete China or anyone else on the playing field.”

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Biden was speaking in the context of a vast infrastructure bill that he was pitching to Congress. Blinken was trying to rouse the foreign ministers of the Western military alliance whose confidence and unity had been shaken in the previous four years of Donald Trump’s presidency. But a nation’s—and a political system’s—appeal, or lack thereof, can also be “demonstrated” in smaller forums: for instance, in the way it treats individuals appealing for asylum.

Many of the Russians fleeing Putin’s tyranny—a brain drain amounting to nearly 1 million people—may someday return to their homeland and help rebuild a new Russia from the rubble of what Putin has ravaged. It would be good—it would be in our national security interests—if they had fond memories of their time in the U.S., saw our political system as something to emulate (in their own way), or at the very least viewed us as partners (in certain realms), not as hostile rivals or enemies.

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In 1994, at a celebration of his 90th birthday, the legendary diplomat George Kennan—the architect of America’s “containment” policy during the Cold War—said, “It is primarily by example, never by precept, that a country such as ours exerts its most useful influence beyond its borders … unless we preserve the quality, the vigor, and the morale of our own society, we will be of little use to anyone at all.”

Back during the darkest days of the Cold War, in the 1950s and early ’60s, Moscow’s propagandists would answer critiques of their human-rights abuses by shouting, “What about the Negroes lynched in Mississippi?” We should not allow Putin or Xi Jinping or any other authoritarian leader to deal with complaints about their abuses by asking, “What about the asylum-seekers held in your immigration prisons?”

President Dwight Eisenhower sent federal troops to enforce school integration laws in Mississippi because his diplomats told him the racist riots were damaging U.S. foreign policy. For the same reason, President Biden should drastically overhaul ICE.

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