A large majority of Americans say they want to welcome Ukrainians fleeing the Russian invasion that displaced millions, devastated entire cities and shocked the world. But in the U.S. immigration system, a problem arises: when many other equally desperate asylum seekers (mostly non-whites) are rejected, imprisoned in inhumane and degrading conditions, or stuck in endless backlogs, it is difficult to argue that Ukrainians should receive special treatment.

Is the American promise to Ukrainians fleeing the Russian invasion being kept?

When war broke out between Russia and Ukraine in late February, several countries opened their borders to Ukrainians displaced by the war. The United States pledged to provide refuge for 100,000 Ukrainians on its soil. The European Union quickly granted Ukrainian refugees the right to live and work for up to three years and has since taken in over 5 million refugees.

Poland has taken in more than 3 million people, nearly 10 percent of its population. However, it was only on March 24 that President Joe Biden announced the U.S. would take only 100,000, and his administration has not even reached that goal.

What are the realities facing Ukrainians once in the United States?

Ukrainians displaced by war face an exclusionary immigration system. A few lucky ones have entered on visitor visas. But this option offers only temporary security and prohibits legal work.

Thousands of people entered Mexico and made their way to the Tijuana border crossing, where they were initially turned away by a public health law called Section 42 – still used to turn away Central Americans, Haitians, and Mexicans – but were later granted an exemption, allowing some 23,000 people to live in the country on humanitarian parole. A new program called “Uniting for Ukraine” will allow access to those who can find a U.S. sponsor willing to sign an (unenforceable) declaration of financial support.

Obtaining a work permit is crucial for immigrants seeking self-sufficiency, but it is more difficult. Unemployment in the U.S. is approaching its lowest level. Ukrainians are highly educated and motivated, but work permit applications can take up to a year to process, including under a special program called Temporary Protected Status, or TPS.

Such delays will lead many Ukrainians to work illegally in low-skilled jobs, risking abuse, exploitation, rejection of future immigration applications, and even deportation. Even if parolees are somehow granted the right to work, their status will be 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 asylum applications and more than 1.6 million in immigration court.

How can the United States keep its promise to Ukrainians and others fleeing violence and repression?

The U.S. must urgently reform its immigration system so that the rapid and effective provision of work permits to the most vulnerable immigrants becomes the principle, not the exception.

First, immigration casework departments should ensure that humanitarian parole entrants receive prompt assistance in applying for work permits, and automatically expedite applications from priority groups (Ukrainians in this case).

Second, TPS claims must be processed in a timely manner. Finally, adjustment legislation should be enacted to allow designated parole groups – such as Ukrainians fleeing war and Afghans fleeing the Taliban – to apply for residency if they could not return to their home country after parole.

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