The United States has long provided a safe haven for people from around the world who wish to escape oppression, participate in our economy, or just make a new life in a country historically known for opportunity. Now, as the world watches the people of Ukraine transform almost overnight from average citizens to a nation of heroes weathering the onslaught of an oppressive regime, we must reaffirm our commitment to the principles of liberty and freedom that so many generations have flocked here for, and that countless others — immigrants and their children among them — have fought to defend.
To many people watching the news, the idea of offering refugee status to at least some portion of the hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians fleeing the dangers and deprivations caused by Putin’s deplorable invasion seems like the most obvious and simplest way to save lives. This is a natural reaction, but one that sadly misses the intricacies of the U.S. immigration system.
Many people believe in the a deeply flawed but politically convenient fiction that our borders are porous or at risk of being overrun by “illegal” immigrants, but the reality is that entering our country for any purpose is incredibly challenging. I speak with dozens of people every week who wonder whether asylum is a solution, but it simply is not a status that is applicable to the situation at hand.
Immigration laws are very different for people physically located in foreign countries, compared to the rules for those who already are on American soil or are somewhere close to our borders. Asylum only becomes an option once they can make it all the way here, which oftentimes is the hardest part. Refugee status is an alternative, but it is far more difficult to get a foot in the door if you come through that way.
The situation in Ukraine highlights the shortcomings of our current system in responding to emergent crisis situations. Failing a bold move from the Biden administration to offer temporary protected status to those Ukrainians fleeing the war who manage to make it to our shores, we will need to use a combination of creativity and compassion to harness the full potential of our often ungainly immigration system to legally admit people seeking safety in the United States.
Fortunately, immigration attorneys are well versed in navigating the labyrinthine regulatory maze that is our immigration and citizenship framework, and they have identified options that not only will allow for relatively speedy access to the country, but also visa paths that will enable new residents from Ukraine to use the innate skills and determination that they have shown the world while standing up to Russia’s war machine to make an immediate contribution to this country. For example, talented scientists, musicians, athletes, artists, academics, and physicians may be able to take advantage of “extraordinary ability” visa status to work in the United States. Managers and workers with special knowledge who have worked for companies with American offices may also have increased visa options. Student visas additionally could be used to provide access to both education and entry status for newcomers, and through the infusion of new perspectives and experiences, those students could add texture to America’s famed cultural tapestry.
Even these examples, of course, are not without their own legal challenges and bureaucratic minutiae. But now, more than ever, we owe it to the brave people of Ukraine to try. This does not mean we should ignore the hardships or suffering faced by millions of others around the world, but rather that we should use this experience to remind ourselves that while suffering is sadly universal, it is not inevitable.
A few months ago, Fox News invited me to participate in a segment about the history of Ellis Island. Not only was it an opportunity to help educate some of the network’s viewers, who may not be aware of the history or nuances of our immigration system, it was a powerful reminder of my own family’s immigrant story.
Both of my grandfathers passed through the island on their way to becoming citizens. Thinking back to their journeys and the challenges they were fleeing, most notably the Nazi war machine tearing apart Europe in a genocidal frenzy, I tried to contemplate what they must have felt. I can only imagine what it had been like to stand in the shadow of a torch-bearing colossus promising that those yearning to breathe free could pass through a golden door to escape the tempest raging across the ocean. It was a humbling experience.
Now, as the world watches another authoritarian power bomb and burn its way through a sovereign democracy, we must make sure the torch of liberty stays lit. If any good can come of the tragic situation in Ukraine, it could be in the form of a progressive and permanent overhaul of our immigration policy, so that it would respond better to similar situations in the future.
We can and we must use our immigration system in America to provide refuge and support not only to the Ukrainian people suffering unspeakable deprivations, but also to others who face similar hardship imposed by despots and dictators. Welcoming newcomers does not weaken us; it is us, and it is the very basis of our existence as a country.
If we do this, we can add new talent and strengths to our community, bolster our economy, and inspire other countries to follow our lead. It is in this way that we can honor the spirit of Ukraine and grant glory to her heroes.
Michael Wildes is the mayor of Englewood. He’s also an adjunct professor at the Cardozo School of Law in Manhattan and the author of “Safe Haven in America: Battles to Open the Golden Door,” which draws on his 25 years of experience as an immigration lawyer.