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Goldman: Freedom's beacon dims: A guide to being a refugee in 2022

Mo Goldman is a Tucson attorney specializing in immigration law.

President Ronald Reagan once proudly stated, “America is a shining city upon a hill whose beacon of light guides freedom-loving people everywhere.” The immigrant family gazes at the Statue of Liberty and their dreams of a new life revitalized.

In 2022 that beacon is so dim that hardly anyone can see it. The immigrant family stares blankly at a wall. A nightmare stands before them.

If you doubt that the U.S. beacon of light needs a fresh bulb, ask any Ukrainian seeking safety from Putin’s tyranny. It’s a perilous journey with many roadblocks and uncertainty. One that all refugees must try to overcome once they reach the soil of this country… if they reach the soil of this country.

To illustrate the absurdity of the U.S. immigration laws today and the need to upgrade the dysfunctional system that has become more and more xenophobic the past several decades, let me provide you with a series of questions that I get almost daily since the invasion by Russia (these questions and answers can actually apply to anybody fleeing their country):

Q: How can my friend and his family legally get visas to the United States so that they can seek safety and shelter? I am willing to provide them with a roof over their heads and sponsor them until they can get settled and find a job(s).

A: Getting an entry visa is not that easy. There is no “refugee visa” available for people fleeing a war or other forms of oppression. Most people would need to apply for a visitor/tourist visa, but there’s a catch: The law requires that they intend to return to their home country and have “non-immigrant intent.” So, good luck getting a B-1/B-2 visa when you are forcefully displaced like we’ve seen in many countries all over the world. There are also only limited appointments available at the U.S. embassies across the world.

 Q: Wait. You mean they need a visa in their passport to come to the U.S.? Doesn’t the United States waive the requirement of a visa for some people?

A: The U.S. has a visa waiver program (known as “ESTA”). However, it only applies to certain countries. It does not include Ukrainians, Afghans, Syrians, Haitians, Guatemalans or people from other countries that have fled or are fleeing persecution, imminent danger or death. Canada has opened up channels for Ukrainians to arrive without a visa. The United States, the dimming beacon of light, has not.

Q: What if our friends make it to Mexico. Can’t they just show up at the U.S. border and request asylum?

A: Unfortunately, the U.S. still has the public health policy, Title 42, in place which expels migrants based on the pretext that they could be carrying COVID-19. Until that is lifted, they can be denied admission. This applies to all migrants. Also, keep in mind, that if you come to the border and request protection the U.S. Department of Homeland Security can detain you and hold you for potentially a lengthy period. So, it does come with some risk.

Q: My friends made it to the U.S. on visitor visas. They arrived on March 4, 2022. Can they get Temporary Protected Status (TPS)? We heard that U.S. granted TPS to Ukrainians.

A: Sorry. They arrived too late to qualify. Ukrainian TPS requires all applicants to have been in the U.S. since March 1, 2022. If the Department of Homeland Security redesignates Ukraine with a new effective date, they can qualify. But, as of now, they don’t qualify for TPS.

Q: I read online that there is a possibility of requesting humanitarian parole for the displaced. Is that true?

Humanitarian parole is available for those seeking admission to the U.S. for urgent humanitarian reasons or significant public benefit. However, it is technically for a “temporary period” and there is a distinct possibility that it will get denied because of that reason. Furthermore, it costs a government fee of $575 and there are tens of thousands of these applications currently in the queue (many for Afghans) and DHS is slow to review them.

Q: But won’t most Ukrainians not qualify for TPS with that effective date?

A: Yep, makes zero sense.

Q: My friends are safely in the U.S.; can they work or get a driver’s license at least?

A: Sorry, they cannot get a work permit…yet. Also, most likely, they can’t get a driver’s license. If they qualify for TPS they can apply for a work permit. However, that could take several months and possibly longer than a year. They won’t be able to work legally in the U.S. during that time. If they request asylum, they have to wait 150 days before they can even apply for a work permit, and it is difficult to estimate how long it will take them to get the permit after applying and then hopefully their drivers license and a social security number.

Q: So, basically you are telling me that they are fleeing one nightmare only to be stuck in a different type of bureaucratic nightmare? How can they survive if they can’t get gainful employment or a driver’s license or a social security number?

A: Unfortunately, that’s the case. How do many immigrants who come to the U.S. survive? The circumstances and terrible immigration policy force them to work off the books and get paid cash.

Maybe the crisis in Ukraine will force the U.S. government to consider revising a completely defective immigration system? One would hope that our elected officials and appointed leaders will take note of this and come up with some simple solutions to these problems. Here are some suggestions:

  • Authorize the visa waiver option in times of crisis for countries with tens of thousands (or millions) of displaced citizens. Recent examples include Afghanistan and Ukraine. Just require those fleeing to have a willing sponsor to help them get settled. There are numerous people who would gladly open their doors to these individuals.
  • Make humanitarian parole more accessible and adjudicated quickly.
  • Update the TPS effective date so many more people will qualify. Right now, it’s not even logical.
  • End Title 42 expulsions.
  • Amend the regulations related to employment/work authorization to provisionally permit people to be work authorized once they are admitted to the United States. Let them work while they are awaiting background checks and any other clearances necessary. Even if they get a one-year permit to work, that is a good start. Why force them to work off the books or seek other ways to survive and feed their families?
  • Value the economic boon that immigrants bring to this country versus focusing on the negative. The positives far outweigh it.

The faded beacon of light could still reignite with bold leadership, robust change and welcoming policies. The U.S. immigration system currently forces people to try and find loopholes or any other avenue to enter the country or survive here. It encourages activity that is not considered legal, but when the legal avenues are few and far between and the roadblocks discussed above exist, there are no good options available. Change needs to happen, and it needs to happen now.

Mo Goldman is a Tucson attorney specializing in immigration law.

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UN Women/Aurel Obreja

People cross into neighboring Moldova, fleeing the Russian invasion of Ukraine, March 1, 2022.

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