- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 2, 2022

President Biden’s tough talk this week for Russia and words of comfort for Ukraine didn’t extend to tens of thousands of Ukrainian citizens in the U.S. who fear having to return to their war-torn country.

Bipartisan pressure is building on Mr. Biden to grant new humanitarian protections to allow those Ukrainians to remain and work in the U.S. legally even if their visas expire or they are in the country illegally.

“I think it’s kind of tragic that folks are literally being shelled in our living room every evening and we have an opportunity to provide at least a modicum of security and safety to Ukrainians already here — and we don’t,” said Emilio Gonzalez, who ran the Department of Homeland Security’s citizenship agency in the George W. Bush administration.

He partnered with Leon Rodriguez, who ran the citizenship agency under President Obama, on a letter this week urging Mr. Biden to grant temporary protected status to Ukrainians. They said in the letter that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is a “classic example” of why the Temporary Protected Status program exists.

Created by Congress in 1990, temporary protected status can be granted to people from countries strained by natural disasters, pandemics, political upheaval or war. The goal is to offer citizens a short-term haven and give the countries a chance to recover without an influx of citizens straining services.

Under the program, migrants can get legal status for up to 18 months, hold jobs to support themselves and gain access to some taxpayer benefits.

It applies to people in the U.S. legally and illegally, though in the case of the 30,000 or so Ukrainians estimated to be eligible, most probably have legal status with student visas or temporary work visas.

The Department of Homeland Security designates temporary protected status, though Congress can approve a designation.

Rep. Mike Quigley, Illinois Democrat and a co-chair of the Congressional Ukraine Caucus, said he is working on a designation for Ukrainians.

The caucus is circulating a letter that would urge Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas to act without waiting for Congress.

“I am continuing to work with my colleagues to press the administration to take these steps,” Mr. Quigley said Wednesday.

European leaders are moving even faster. The European Commission on Wednesday published a proposal for a temporary protection directive, which is similar to temporary protected status.

“Temporary protection is the appropriate instrument in the present situation,” the commission said in its proposal.

In his State of the Union address Tuesday night, Mr. Biden touted the unprecedented web of sanctions slapped on Russia and said the Justice Department is creating a task force to target Russian oligarchs. He celebrated $1 billion in U.S. direct assistance to Ukraine.

“To our fellow Ukrainian Americans who forge a deep bond that connects our two nations, we stand with you. We stand with you,” the president said.

He didn’t mention any specific relief for Ukrainians, and the White House this week deflected questions about the Temporary Protected Status program.

“That’s a process that’s run by the Department of Homeland Security,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters. “They evaluate, through an interagency process, both what everybody’s recommendations are and, obviously, the conditions on the ground in Ukraine.”

The president doesn’t have to rely on Homeland Security for relief. He has a nearly identical power, known as deferred enforced departure, to protect Ukrainians.

Indeed, Mr. Biden granted deferred departure to Hong Kong residents last summer because of China’s anti-democracy crackdown.

The White House didn’t respond to an inquiry on deferred departure.

Ms. Psaki did say the U.S. will accept refugees from Ukraine, but the White House figures most of them will end up in European countries rather than make their way across the Atlantic.

Some activists have called for a halt in deportations to Ukraine.

That is not likely to affect many Ukrainians. From 2018 to 2020, Homeland Security reported deporting 105 to 125 a year. The department has yet to release its 2021 report.

As the U.S. searches for other pressure points in the conflict, Mr. Gonzalez said the immigration system offers opportunities to help Ukraine and punish Russia.

One option would be to revoke temporary visas for Russians in the U.S. as students or workers. Hockey fans fear such a policy would upend the National Hockey League season and decimate teams that rely on Russian players.

Mr. Gonzalez was particularly fond of blocking Russians from America’s investor visa, which offers a path to citizenship for people who pay $900,000 or more to fund job-creating projects in the U.S.

Mr. Gonzalez said going after the investor visa, officially known as the EB-5 program, could target people who have prospered under the wing of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

“Where is that money coming from?” Mr. Gonzalez wondered.

Asked why the Biden administration has resisted temporary protected status, Mr. Gonzalez said he feared the issue is getting wrapped up in immigration politics.

“If you give people TPS, if you so much as broach the subject of TPS, then you open up that whole immigration-border security can of worms. And that’s just the way people operate up there,” he said.

Indeed, the program is not free of controversy.

Once granted, temporary protected status has proved difficult to revoke in some cases. People from Honduras and El Salvador have been under temporary protected status for more than two decades. More than 250,000 have lived in the U.S. under what was supposed to be a temporary gesture.

President Trump’s attempts to close grant programs were met with lawsuits, which blocked him from carrying out his plans.

The day before he left office, Mr. Trump granted deferred enforced departure to Venezuelans.

The Biden administration has been more generous with the program. He redesignated Venezuelans, renewed temporary protected status for Syrians and Yemenis, and opened a grant for Haitians and Burmese.

Immigrant rights activists have called for new Temporary Protected Status grants for Central Americans and, more recently, people from Cameroon.

Homeland Security on Wednesday announced windows for Sudan and South Sudan.

• Stephen Dinan can be reached at sdinan@washingtontimes.com.

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