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News

Lawmakers push Biden administration to give Ukrainians temporary protection

A convoy of Russian trucks crosses the Ukrainian border at the Donetsk-Izvarino custom control checkpoint as Ukrainian refugees look on, Saturday. Russia says the trucks are carrying aid; Ukrainian officials say they don't know what's inside.
A convoy of Russian trucks crosses the Ukrainian border at the Donetsk-Izvarino custom control checkpoint as Ukrainian refugees look on, Saturday. Russia says the trucks are carrying aid; Ukrainian officials say they don't know what's inside.

Immigration experts and elected leaders are pressing the Biden administration to consider allowing Ukrainians already in the United States on temporary visas to stay.

Massachusetts Reps. Richard Neal, Jim McGovern, Ayanna Pressley and Stephen Lynch as well as Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Ed Markey were among dozens of legislators who wrote President Joe Biden on Tuesday, urging him to use “all available pathways” under the law to protect individuals of Ukrainian nationality already in the U.S. on temporary visas. The appeal comes days after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, shelling major cities and leading to many deaths on both sides.

“Without action by your Administration, they could be forced to return to a nation under siege,” the letter reads.

The lawmakers also asked that Biden and Sec. of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas offer temporary protected status (TPS) to Ukrainians, a legal status that can apply to people from countries facing armed conflict if returning would pose a serious threat to their personal safety. The program was most recently spotlighted last year when Afghan interpreters were fleeing the country as the Taliban regained power.

Legislators additionally asked for Ukrainians in the United States to get a temporary administrative stay of removal in the form of Deferred Enforced Departure, and any students here on an F-1 student visa be able to access special student relief status. All three legal immigration statuses allow for employment eligibility — and for students, legal status during their entire time of study.

There are approximately 30,000 Ukrainian nationals in the United States who would be eligible for TPS and DED, and about 2,000 students eligible for special student relief.

“We cannot force these individuals to return to a nation likely to be mired in prolonged armed conflict,” the legislators wrote. The Department of Homeland Security told GBH News in an email that it is “closely monitoring conditions” in various countries around the globe.

The Immigration and Nationality Act, a longtime piece of federal law, gives the Department of Homeland Security the power to extend TPS to citizens from countries facing war, natural and humanitarian disasters.

“It’s quite possible that the Biden administration will open temporary protected status for Ukrainians,” said Julie Gelatt, a senior policy analyst for independent think tank Migration Policy Institute. "Having a war break out is a pretty classic basis for designating a country for a temporary protected status."

While TPS, deferred action and the special student visa are only temporary protections without a pathway to citizenship, she said they offer solace to those who are worried about having to return to Ukraine right now.

Gelatt said that the special student relief and TPS are often granted together, so that’s something the Biden administration might be likely to do.

It’s unclear how long the Russian invasion of Ukraine will displace residents, whether for a short period or indefinitely. Several European countries have also opened their borders to Ukrainians in the short term.

The legislators’ letter follows the same plea from 177 organizations last week, including the Niskanen Center, American Immigration Lawyers Association and Catholic Legal Immigration Network, who asked Biden and Mayorkas for the same three temporary immigration statuses to be made available to Ukrainians.

“Those are just sort of smart, kind of pragmatic, immediate steps that that that the administration could take right now,” said Kristie De Peña, Vice President of Policy at the Niskanen Center, a think tank that specializes in immigration policy.

The Migration Policy Institute estimates there are 345,000 Ukrainians in the United States, including about 10,000 in Massachusetts, many of which have U.S. citizenship or green cards. But for the many staying here briefly, or who want to bring family over, new immigration pathways will be important.

“I think it’s the lowest-hanging fruit,” said De Peña. It “defies logic,” she said, for any Ukrainian who loses their current legal immigration status — such as a student visa — to have to return to Ukraine.