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As Europe Readies for a Wave of Ukrainian Refugees, History Suggests the U.S. Should Do the Same

Feb 24, 2022

Europe’s peace was shattered in the early hours of Wednesday morning when Russia launched a full-scale military attack against neighboring Ukraine after months of troop and tank buildups, shelling multiple Ukrainian cities as Russian troops and tanks poured over Ukraine’s eastern and northern borders and explosions rocked the capital Kyiv.

During the weeks leading up to the invasion, the U.S. Department of State (DOS) ordered the families of American employees of the U.S. Embassy in Kyiv to leave, followed by the ordered departure of most American employees at the Embassy on February 12, 2022, and the suspension of consular services the following day.

As tensions mounted on the Ukrainian-Russian border, the countries to the west of Ukraine began to prepare for a potential migrant crisis. Humanitarian organizations warned that Ukrainian-speaking civilians would likely flee to European Union countries on Ukraine’s western border, such as Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, and Romania. The governments of the Czech Republic and Moldova also said they were readying for a wave of refugees, while Germany offered assistance to Poland in accommodating refugees, should they need it. Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia, the Baltic nations to the northwest of Ukraine, are also preparing to receive refugees, with Latvia alone readying 10,000 places for refugees.

By Thursday morning, hundreds of Ukrainians began arriving in neighboring countries in Central Europe, many by car, though others were seen crossing on foot into Hungary. Slovak customs officials reported that passenger cars at Slovakia’s busiest border crossing with Ukraine were waiting up to eight hours.

For its part, the U.S. sent 5,500 troops to Poland, a fellow North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) member, moving them close to the border with Ukraine to help process people fleeing the Russian invasion. U.S. government officials have estimated that between one and five million people could flee Ukraine, many traveling to Poland. Some experts say that the U.S., the EU, and other governments will need to provide financial assistance to countries who are receiving most of the refugees. Senator Chris Murphy (D-Conn), a member of the Foreign Relations Committee, says that a wave of refugees “will require major assistance from the United States.”

However, the history of Ukrainian immigration to the U.S. shows that the administration and its agencies should expect to see an uptick in Ukrainian arrivals, not just in the coming days and weeks, but stretching into years.

A short history of Ukrainian immigration to the United States

Historians generally recognize four distinct waves of Ukrainian immigration to the United States, beginning in the 1870s.

During this period, the United States had a relatively unregulated immigration system, with states passing their own immigration laws. Immigration wasn’t declared to be a purely federal issue until a Supreme Court decision in 1875. The Chinese Exclusion Act was passed in May 1882, followed shortly by the first comprehensive immigration reform law in 1882, which instituted what is now commonly referred to as the public charge policy.

Although there was virtually no regulation of European immigrants entering the U.S. during this time period, the adoption of these exclusionary immigration acts at the federal level signaled the more restrictive and generally nationalist stance the U.S. would take on immigration over the following century.

The First Wave of Ukrainian immigration took place roughly between 1870–1914, and was marked by migration largely for economic reasons, though forced conscription and religious persecution by the Empires that divided Ukraine also led some to leave their country. It is estimated that around 350,000 Ukrainians came to the United States during this period, lured by reports of land and higher wages.

The Second Wave occurred between the First and Second World Wars, as Ukrainians who had backed the failed 1918 bid for independence fled political and social persecution by Soviet Russia. An estimated 80,000 to 100,000 fled Ukraine from 1918-1920, with only an estimated 10,000 to 15,000 able to enter the U.S. between 1919 and 1939 as a result of the tightening immigration restrictions in the United States.

The vast numbers of displaced persons worldwide following WWII led in the U.S. to the Displaced Persons Act of 1948, which eventually allowed around 400,00 European refugees to be admitted to the United States. This enabled the Third Wave, which saw an estimated 80,000 Ukrainians come to the U.S. before the Cold War led to the U.S. banning immigrants affiliated with communist parties in 1952.

Finally, a Fourth recognized wave occurred following the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991. In the United States, the Immigration Act of 1990 was the first major reform of U.S. immigration laws in decades, increasing overall immigration quotas and expanding the family-based immigration system. The collapse of the USSR led to a collapse of the Ukrainian economy as well, resulting in the largest movement of Ukrainian people in their history: as of 2017, an estimated 7 million people had left their home country. The expanded avenues created by the Immigration Act of 1990 allowed emigration from Ukraine to remain high through the 1990s, peaking at 18,000 people entering the U.S. in 2000.

Some researchers have suggested a possible Fifth Wave beginning with Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea, noting that the number of Ukrainian immigrants to the U.S. jumped beginning in 2014: 539% from 2013 to 2015 with 1,547 refugees, before peaking in 2019 at 4,264 refugees. During the Trump administration, Ukrainians became one of the largest groups of refugees resettled in the United States.

With some exception during the First Wave, when many Ukrainian emigrants were seeking improved economic conditions, major periods of upheaval and conflict in Ukraine have historically led to increased migration into the United States: the Second Wave between the World Wars, the Third Wave as a result of displacement during WWII, a Fourth Wave following the collapse of the Soviet Union, and a possible Fifth Wave beginning with the annexation by Russia of Crimea in 2014.

Now, as Russia wages an unprovoked invasion of its neighbor, Ukrainians are again faced with the difficult decision of whether to leave for their safety.

If history is any guide, the conflict that has engulfed Ukraine will likely trigger a substantial movement of people, not just out of Ukraine into Central Europe, but to the United States as well.

With thousands already on the move, refugee resettlement leaders in the U.S. are warning that the current attack could lead to a mass exodus from Ukraine, and are calling on Biden “to prepare to welcome people fleeing for their lives.” Immigration organizations and advocates are calling for immediate protections for Ukrainians already in the country, such as Temporary Protected Status (TPS), Deferred Enforced Departure (DED), and Special Student Relief (SSR).

In addition to the above forms of humanitarian relief for people already inside the U.S., some people fleeing Ukraine will have the option to apply to adjust their status through U.S. citizen or Lawful Permanent Resident family members. In what appears to be directly related to the previous waves of Ukrainian immigration to the U.S., the Shevchenko Scientific Society noted that in the period from 2000-2018, approximately 32% of Ukrainian immigrants came to the U.S. through a U.S. citizen immediate relative. Those without U.S. citizen or LPR family members who can sponsor them will need to rely on the humanitarian parole or refugee processes to enter the country, leaving them in limbo until the U.S. government announces any additional policies or guidance to assist Ukrainian people fleeing their country.

When asked about the topic, a DHS spokesperson replied, “We have no announcements to share or preview at this time. As is always the case, we continue to closely monitor conditions in various countries.”

Read more about how immigration attorneys are working with Ukrainian refugees, or find out how you can help.

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