To help protect Ukrainians in the US, we have to fix our immigration system

The Dallas Morning News editorial board (TNS)
Julia Gereasumenko and her pets, Garfield the cat and Yoda the dog, take shelter underground in a subway station on the seventh day of the Russian invasion, in Kyiv, Ukraine, Wednesday, March 2, 2022. (Marcus Yam/Los Angeles Times/TNS)

There is little that Republicans and Democrats in Congress agree on nowadays, so we are heartened to see them come together to support the people of Ukraine. Bipartisan calls are growing louder to extend temporary protections to Ukrainians already in the U.S., and we hope the Biden administration will listen.

The special protection, called Temporary Protected Status or TPS, shields recipients from deportation for 18 months and gives them permission to work. Eligible people include Ukrainians who are here on nonimmigrant visas to attend college, do business or visit family. TPS would also protect Ukrainians who have overstayed their visas.

Lawmakers are also asking the Biden administration to relax rules for Ukrainian students to allow them to work off campus and take less than a full course load at school.

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It would be callous for Americans to force Ukrainians to go back home to a brutal invasion. The U.S. has previously offered TPS to citizens of other countries, including El Salvador, Haiti and Venezuela, after natural disasters and political crises.

But we urge members of the U.S. House and Senate to look beyond the TPS designation. Our country can grant this special status, but there is more work that needs to be done behind the curtain. Our lawmakers must fix the case-processing backlog in our immigration system that complicates the lives of people waiting in line for humanitarian protections and other immigration statuses.

About 30,000 Ukrainians could benefit from TPS, according to the Migration Policy Institute think tank. Yet as of September, there was a backlog of 281,000 TPS applications, said Julia Gelatt, a senior policy analyst with MPI. The average wait time is about four months, which is far better than other programs in which applicants wait for years, but there is also a significant backlog for applicants seeking employment authorization documents.

After our country’s bungled exit from Afghanistan last year, public pressure mounted on American officials to expedite protections for Afghan immigrants. That led to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, or USCIS, shifting people and resources to process those applications faster, Gelatt said. It was the right step, but it also meant that people in line for other programs will have to wait even longer.

The USCIS backlog of cases across programs — from refugee status to work visas to family green cards — has grown from 5.7 million in 2019 to 9.5 million as of February. It’s a giant headache for applicants, who find themselves in a legal limbo that keeps them separated from family or that causes them to lose out on job offers or university admission.

We hope this country’s efforts to help our Ukrainian visitors will bring renewed attention to the gaps in our immigration system and perhaps muster the political will to do something about them.