Here's what you need to know about democracy this week:
1. Biden Flip Flops on Refugees, Leaving Many Unclear on the Path Forward
2. India Faces COVID Catastrophe While the World Rushes to its Aid
3. Maduro Tightens His Grip on Venezuelan Civil Society
Biden Flip Flops on Refugees, Leaving Many Unclear on the Path Forward
America’s annual refugee cap, 1980-2020. By the end of President Trump’s term, it reached a decades-low 15,000. Credit: Niall McCarthy/Statista
How many refugees will the U.S. admit in fiscal year 2021?
D) Likely between 15,000 and 62,500
The answer was A. Until it was B. Then C. Then D. As the Biden administration flip-flopped, more than 715 refugees on their way to be resettled in the U.S. had their flights cancelled, and 33,000 refugees already approved by the U.S. were also left uncertain about their futures.
The following timeline illustrates the administration’s inconsistency on this sensitive issue:
- Last June: On World Refugee Day, Biden pledges to raise the cap to 125,000.
- February 12: Biden tells Congress he is scaling his promise back to 62,500. Press Secretary Jen Psaki reiterates this stance on April 12 and April 15.
- April 16: Biden issues a presidential memorandum recommending that the 2020 cap of 15,000 be kept in place.
- Hours later: After receiving backlash, Biden backtracks. He says he will release a final cap by May 15, which Psaki announces may be greater than 15,000 but is “unlikely” to be as high as 62,500.
The controversy around refugee admissions is a relatively recent phenomenon. For decades, under both parties, the cap hovered around an average of 90,000 refugees admitted per year. Considering America’s size, this was already not a particularly large number—from 2012 to 2017, the U.S. ranked 50th in per capita refugee resettlement (admittedly, there was also a surge in Europe during this time). However, under the guidance of Stephen Miller, President Trump slashed the cap to historically low levels, politicizing the previously non-partisan program.
What is Biden’s calculus for doing this?
The administration has relayed mixed messages on the reasoning behind these changes. On April 1, Psaki asserted that the delay in raising the cap was “not related” to the recent spike of migrants on the southern border. On April 16, Biden said the opposite. Even then, Biden and Psaki claimed the changes were because the surge has stretched government resources. On the other hand, inside sources insist that given the border crisis, Biden is concerned that raising the cap would leave him open to accusations of an “open borders” immigration policy. The inside sources may have a more convincing argument, as separate departments handle refugee processing and border policy—respectively, State and Homeland Security.
What happened in Europe during the 2014-15 refugee crisis may be instructive here. Across the continent, a surge of arrivals inflamed ethno-nationalism. In Germany, for example, the spike coincided with the rise of the far-right AfD, and a study of Austria suggests it directly pushed voters towards the nationalist, neo-Nazi Freedom Party. Biden may be worried about a similar nativist backlash in the United States, especially considering that the approval rating of his handling of the southern border is currently abysmal.
What should America do with its refugee cap moving forward?
We should increase it.
It is worth noting that increasing the refugee cap does not mean condoning undocumented immigration, nor does it mean sacrificing our security as a nation, both of which are essential. Refugees are those who are “unable or unwilling to return to their country of origin owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted...” They must complete a multi-year, 20-step vetting process before arriving; it’s an incredibly high bar, meaning those who qualify are in real danger and do not pose a security threat.
The U.S. has, with some important exceptions, long been a refuge to the world’s “huddled masses,” from persecuted Puritans, to Irish blighted by the potato famine, to displaced Vietnamese in the 1970s. We can, and should, continue the prouder parts of this collective heritage. There are currently 1.4 million refugees, only 4.5 percent of whom were resettled anywhere in 2019—the imperative to help is urgent. We should be honored that people the world over, from dissidents to refugees to others seeking freedom, yearn to come to our shores. They have made and continue to make our country an exceptional nation.
India Faces COVID Catastrophe While the World Rushes to its Aid
Credit: Atul Loke via New York Times.
As COVID-19 spreads like wildfire across India, funeral pyres burn nonstop for the thousands dying daily from the deadly virus. For the sixth straight day on Tuesday, India marked a world record for daily COVID-19 infections, up to 360,927 cases—likely a significant underestimate, but still far more than any other country in the world. Following months of relative success in curbing the spread of the illness, the country of 1.4 billion is now experiencing a humanitarian crisis of epic proportions. Though official death counts are edging past 2,500, experts believe that the true daily toll of the virus in India could be two to five times higher.
Even in urban areas with more robust health infrastructure, Indian hospitals are crumbling under the demand for oxygen and beds. In New Delhi, dozens of critically ill patients hooked up to ventilators died when an oxygen shortage led to a drop in oxygen pressure. Untold others have slowly suffocated waiting for a hospital bed; in one hospital on the outskirts of New Delhi, a doctor told USA Today that they were receiving “hundreds of calls” for beds “every minute.”
The death count will likely rise further as the virus spreads deeper into rural areas, which account for 65% of India’s population and where people have very limited access to medical care. By August, some experts estimate that almost one million people could die from COVID-19 in India.
What does this mean for the rest of the world?
The world has taken notice of what is happening in India, shocked and saddened by the humanitarian tragedy unfolding in the world’s second largest country. But this is not only a humanitarian crisis. Rising cases in the country could create major problems for the rest of the world, including:
- A greater potential for a vaccine resistant mutant strain: The current strain ripping through India already has two unique mutations that have made the virus more contagious, more resistant to vaccines, and potentially more capable of reinfecting people who already had COVID-19. The more this strain spreads, the more likely it is that it mutates into an even more deadly version of the virus that could be completely resistant to the vaccines.
- A decline in COVID vaccine supply to developing countries: India is home to the Serum Institute, one of the world’s largest producers of the Astrazeneca vaccine and a major supplier for COVAX, the worldwide vaccine distribution program for poorer nations. India was initially supposed to contribute 240 million doses to COVAX by the end of June. Now, because of the rapid rise in cases in India, the country has largely halted vaccine exports. As a result, vaccination campaigns in the developing world have slowed, and in some places, come to a near standstill. This has left hundreds of millions more people vulnerable to the infection that has already claimed the lives of 3.14 million in the world.
What has America done? And what more can it do?
Already, the United States has taken several important steps to stem the pandemic in India. On Sunday, the US partially lifted an export ban on vaccine raw materials, ventilators, PPE, and testing kits, allowing us to send urgently needed supplies to India. America has also promised to send funding to help speed up Indian vaccine production. On Monday, the Biden Administration promised to free up 60 million Astrazeneca vaccines for export abroad. Notably, last October, Moderna, promised not to enforce the patent on its vaccine “against those making vaccines intended to combat the pandemic.”
Yet there is still more the United States can do. 60 million doses is enough to vaccinate 30 million people. India has 1.4 billion, and reaching herd immunity in the developing world will require 8 billion doses. Already, the U.S. has purchased enough vaccine supply to vaccinate its population twice over. The U.S. is in a position to export more doses, and it’s in the country’s best interest to do so. This isn’t simply humanitarian aid, it will keep Americans safe.
The Biden administration should also be significantly ramping up exports of the raw materials needed for vaccine production, allowing foreign nations to more rapidly produce their own vaccine supply. Finally, the U.S. should back an intellectual property waiver on vaccines at the World Trade Organization this Thursday, allowing countries around the world to produce generic versions of Moderna, Pfizer, and other effective vaccines without legal barriers.
In a moment of crisis for the world’s largest democracy, the United States must once again step up as a global leader, and provide our long-time ally with necessary supplies, aid, and additional vaccines to lower India’s climbing death toll. The world is in a race against time to get to herd immunity. It’s up to us to defeat the virus, before the virus can defeat the vaccines.
Maduro Tightens His Grip on Venezuelan Civil Society
Credit: Jhonn Zerpa / Venezuelan Presidency via AFP, NBC News - Getty Images
In recent weeks, Venezuelan dictator Nicolas Maduro has intensified his crackdown on media and civil society, implementing a series of new laws designed to further entrench his power.
On March 30th, the Venezuelan Ministry of Interior and Justice issued a new requirement that all NGOs share “sensitive information” with the government regarding their donors, activities, and most troublingly, beneficiaries—the vulnerable communities they seek to support. This measure is intended to intimidate and limit the work of civic organizations fighting for democracy and human rights in Venezuela.
Maduro’s government has also introduced a new foreign aid law, which, if passed, would prohibit foreign contributions to independent news outlets. At a time when Venezuela’s currency is suffering from hyperinflation, and few Venezuelans can give to domestic organizations, this law would make it even harder for citizens to gain access to uncensored news. The proposed law is only the latest measure Maduro has taken to severely curtail press freedoms since taking power in 2013.
Finally, the state has further manipulated a comprehensive digital tool, Sistema Patria, to establish state control. Maduro’s government introduced the system four years ago to distribute state pensions, but has gradually expanded it to become the primary vehicle through which citizens can receive state benefits, salaries, and even COVID-19 vaccines. The database tracks election loyalty and allows the ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) to systematically distribute the country’s scant resources to government loyalists.
Despite Maduro’s efforts to tighten his grip on power, the country continues to spiral out of his control, with the pandemic and hunger crisis still ravaging a nation impoverished by the socialist policies of Chavez and his successor. Outside of the capital, much of the country, governed by Colombian terrorist groups and drug smugglers, has devolved into lawlessness. In short, Venezuela is a failed state.
What lessons can we draw from what’s happening in Venezuela?
First, what’s happened in Venezuela should serve as a cautionary tale. Within a generation, it went from one of the richest, most democratic countries on the South American continent to a failed petrostate. This speaks to the fragility of democracy and the devastating impact that a corrupt, despotic leader (namely, Hugo Chavez) can have on a nation. It also underscores the danger of eschewing democracy for dogma and elevating extreme ideologies like socialism as governing philosophies. As the American system confronts its own extremism and ideologues, we must heed and internalize this lesson.
Second, Maduro is following the authoritarian playbook written by fellow autocrats the world over. His regime’s proposed foreign aid law echoes the repressive laws instituted by authoritarians in Russia, India, and Nicaragua in recent years. And the Venezuelan Sistema Patria resembles dystopian surveillance techniques adopted from China. Alongside vaccine diplomacy and funding for massive infrastructure projects, Xi, Putin, and other autocrats have exported systems of social and political control throughout the developing world. Unless America reasserts its role as a force for good on the international stage, the crackdown on media and civil society around the globe will only intensify.