If You Want To Help Ukrainians, Welcome Them to the U.S.

Now is the time for immigration relief, not military involvement on Ukraine’s behalf.


Tensions are escalating rapidly on the Ukrainian border, with Russian President Vladimir Putin announcing today that he would send troops into eastern Ukraine. The international community responded swiftly. Germany has put the Nord Stream 2 pipeline on hold, cutting off its supply of Russian gas. Biden administration officials are calling Putin's move an "invasion" and are considering imposing harsh sanctions on Russia.

Beyond the short-term chaos, however, are big questions about humanitarian fallout—especially the potential for a refugee crisis. U.S. officials estimate that between 1 and 5 million Ukrainians could leave their country after a Russian invasion. Ukrainians enjoy visa-free travel to the European Union, making member nations likely destinations for those fleeing Ukraine. Poland accepted many Ukrainian migrants after Russia invaded Crimea in 2014, a move that Polish officials say they are willing to repeat if necessary.

Though farther geographically from the ailing Ukraine, the U.S. can take a number of immigration-based steps to protect Ukrainians now and in the future.

The U.S. should ensure the safety of the Ukrainians who are already present on American soil. The Niskanen Center has proposed that the Biden administration designate Ukrainians as eligible for temporary protected status (TPS) and special student relief (SSR). TPS is a Department of Homeland Security (DHS) designation that prevents nationals of certain countries from being deported if they cannot return home safely. DHS reserves TPS for countries facing temporary destabilizing effects, such as "ongoing armed conflict," "an environmental disaster," or "an epidemic." Similarly, SSR helps protect foreign nationals who are in the U.S. on F-1 student visas in the event of "emergent circumstances."

These are immediate fixes that do not involve drastic intake of migrants or alteration of the U.S. immigration infrastructure. Ideally, the U.S. would also expand its historical intake trend and offer protection to greater numbers of fleeing Ukrainians. Attorney Andrew N. Klokiw writes in the Texas Law Review that Ukrainians "hold a unique distinction as one of the only non-Western European ethnicities to immigrate to the United States continuously and in significant numbers from the late 1870s to the present day." Between 2009 and 2018, Klokiw notes that Ukrainians accounted for the largest share of overall visa admissions from Europe. There is a longstanding precedent for welcoming Ukrainians to the U.S. and a strong Ukrainian presence in many American communities. (Whether those ties will compel the Biden administration to welcome Ukrainian refugees, however, remains to be seen.)

Over 1 million Ukrainians call the U.S. home. As conditions worsen in Ukraine, the U.S. should ensure that it is prepared to accept Ukrainians coming here to join their relatives on family-based visas. As of November 2021, the State Department reported that some 4 million people were stuck abroad in the family-based immigration backlog. The U.S. let 140,000 family-based green cards go to waste in fiscal year 2021, amounting to 62 percent of the total cap. Backlogs are hobbling visa delegation across the entire immigration system, and without reform, they will keep vulnerable people in harm's way. Ukrainians with U.S.-based relatives stand to benefit greatly from quicker processing times.

Americans largely do not crave conflict with Russia. It is unclear what any skirmish between the U.S. and Russia would look like, much less what it would accomplish. The Biden administration should focus on approaches firmly in its control—namely, protecting U.S.-based Ukrainians from removal to their war-torn home country and preparing for a potential refugee crisis.