Utah Gov. Spencer Cox says admitting refugees from Ukraine is “the right thing for our nation to do,” but also pointed to lessons learned from the ongoing resettlement of nearly 76,000 Afghans.

In an editorial published in Fortune Magazine, Cox laid out several steps other states should take in the wake of President Joe Biden’s Uniting for Ukraine initiative, which will streamline the resettlement process for up to 100,000 eligible refugees.

Now, Ukrainians with a sponsor in the U.S. will be considered for humanitarian parole, which lasts up to two years.

More than 5,000 Ukrainians entered the U.S. in March, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection data, the majority of them applying for humanitarian parole or asylum at the U.S.-Mexico border before Biden announced the program in late April.

“We must be prepared. That means taking a hard look at our resettlement capabilities,” Cox wrote in Fortune. “We are already facing a steep learning curve in coordinating the arrival of 76,000 Afghans across America. As we rise to meet this challenge, we are laying the groundwork to receive future refugees — not only from Ukraine, but from other war-torn nations around the globe.”

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Gov. Spencer Cox speaks during a press conference to announce a Driven to Assist community fundraiser and donation drive to benefit refugees fleeing Ukraine at a press conference at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on March 3, 2022. | Mengshin Lin, Deseret News

What do Americans think?

Americans show broad support for admitting refugees from the war, with an estimated 5.5 million Ukrainians now externally displaced. A recent Gallup poll found that 78% of Americans approve of Biden’s plan to resettle 100,000 Ukrainians.

Those numbers are reflected in Utah — at least 87% of Beehive State voters support resettling Ukrainian refugees, according to a Deseret News/Hinckley Institute of Politics poll.

Cox said Utah should expect “as many (refugees) as we can get” during his monthly news conference.

“If we can bring some light into the world, we should do that,” he told reporters, though he couldn’t say when exactly Ukrainians will be resettled in Utah through Biden’s program.

The crisis in Ukraine is on the heels of the U.S. troop withdrawal in Afghanistan, which resulted in the chaotic evacuation of nearly 125,000 people. Around 76,000 were eventually resettled in the U.S. — over 900 in Utah — which, like the situation in Ukraine, received broad approval from the American public.

Polling from APM Research Lab found 4 in 5 Americans are in favor of supporting Afghans that helped U.S. troops, and an additional 68% said they were willing to donate to resettlement efforts.

What should states do?

In his editorial, Cox argues the strong public support behind both resettlement efforts should motivate state leaders, and outlines the successes and gaps in Utah’s push to admit Afghan refugees.

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Create a Refugee Services Office

For 11 years, Utah’s Refugee Services Office has operated under the umbrella of the Department of Workforce Services to help refugees after their initial resettlement.

  • The office is geared toward helping refugees find employment, and offers training for jobs in the health care, pharmacy and construction industries. When the training is complete, the office will match a candidate with an employer.
  • The office also offers English language and health services.

“By dedicating resources specifically to refugees, states send a strong message about the importance of giving our most vulnerable newcomers a vital boost,” Cox writes.

A public-private partnership

It’s a common refrain from Utah politicians, and Cox says it’s an important step in the resettlement process — partner with the private sector.

  • Cox used the Afghan Community Fund as an example, which with help from companies raised over $1 million in donations.

“We saw so many other businesses and organizations in our state generously give money and goods to help the resettlement process,” the Utah governor wrote.

  • The private sector should also look at resettlement efforts as a way to ease labor shortages, Cox said, pointing to studies that show refugees are “loyal workers” and a large percentage of the essential workforce during the pandemic.

“Every state has businesses facing worker shortages,” he wrote. “Municipalities can be a conduit between refugees looking for work and companies in need or hold job fairs specifically for refugees.”

‘We need volunteers’

Cox urged “ordinary citizens” to donate their time and help their new neighbors adjust to life in America.

“Now we need volunteers who can tutor English, help families navigate their local services, and decipher transit maps,” he said. “... Invite your new neighbors to dinner. Help them plant spring gardens. Include them in community picnics or walking groups.”