By Joy Ziegeweid / Bloomberg Opinion
Americans overwhelmingly say they want to welcome Ukrainians fleeing a Russian invasion that has displaced millions, laid waste to entire cities and horrified the world. Yet within the U.S. immigration system, an obstacle emerges: It’s hard to argue that Ukrainians should get “special” treatment, when so many other equally desperate asylum seekers, mostly non-white, have been rejected, jailed in inhumane conditions or stuck in interminable backlogs.
The solution: The U.S. must urgently reform its immigration system, so that quickly and efficiently providing refuge and work authorization to the most vulnerable migrants becomes the norm, not something special.
When the war began in late February, the European Union quickly granted Ukrainian refugees the right to live and work for up to three years, and has since accepted more than five million. Yet only on March 24 did President Joe Biden announce that the U.S. would take a mere 100,000, and his administration has yet to achieve even that.
Ukrainians displaced by the war must contend with an immigration system that is aimed at exclusion. A lucky few have entered on visitor visas, an option that provides only temporary safety and prohibits legal work. Thousands have traveled to Mexico and made their way to the Tijuana border crossing, where they were initially turned away under a public health law known as Title 42 — still being used to reject Central Americans, Haitians and Mexicans — but later granted an exemption that has allowed some 23,000 to stay in the country under humanitarian parole. A new program called Uniting for Ukraine will grant entry to those who can find U.S.-based sponsors willing to sign (unenforceable) declarations of financial support; potentially opening the way for tens of thousands more “parolees,” but also providing minimal resettlement assistance and exposing Ukrainian women to the danger of trafficking and exploitation by unscrupulous sponsors.
Gaining work authorization, essential to immigrants seeking to support themselves, is even more difficult. U.S. unemployment is near record lows, and Ukrainians are highly educated and motivated to work, yet adjudication of a work permit application can take as long as a year; including under a special program known as Temporary Protected Status, or TPS. Such delays will lead many Ukrainians to work unlawfully in low-skilled jobs, risking abuse, exploitation, denial of future immigration applications or even deportation proceedings. And even if parolees somehow obtain the right to work, their status will remain temporary. If they choose to stay, they may have no choice but to apply through the asylum system, which currently faces a backlog of 430,000 cases at asylum offices and more than 1.6 million at immigration courts.
This is not a good look for a self-professed nation of immigrants whose leader has pledged to help Ukrainians. So how can the U.S. fulfill its promise, and promises to other people fleeing violence and repression? First, ensure that entrants on humanitarian parole receive prompt assistance in applying for work authorization, and automatically expedite applications for prioritized groups (in this case Ukrainians). Second, rapidly adjudicate TPS applications. Third, pass an Adjustment Act allowing designated groups of parolees — for example, Ukrainians fleeing war and Afghans fleeing the Taliban — to apply for residence if they are unable to return to their country of origin at the end of their parole.
It’s frustrating that it has taken the plight of white-skinned Ukrainians to draw attention to the deficiencies of the U.S. immigration system, but if the result can be more humane treatment for all people fleeing violence and repression, so be it. Urgent action to accept more Ukrainians in the U.S. not only makes moral and economic sense; it’s a geopolitical imperative. The flood of Ukrainian refugees into Europe — Poland has already accepted more than 3 million, or almost 10 percent of its population — threatens to stoke anti-immigrant sentiment that could undermine the Western alliance in support of Ukraine. And that, in turn, could affect the outcome of the war itself.
Joy Ziegeweid is an immigration attorney in New York. She is a founder of the Legal Immigration Network for Ukraine, which provides information and pro bono legal support for those displaced by the war in Ukraine.