Updated August 11, 2023
** LEGAL UPDATE **
The shocking, unprovoked invasion of Ukraine by Vladimir Putin's Russian military forces in early 2022 led to a mass exodus of Ukrainians into other countries, particularly in Europe. While travel to the United States is less convenient, some Ukrainians have been able to enter, for example on existing tourist visas.
What are their short- and long-term prospects for coming to or remaining in the United States, particularly if this conflict escalates or drags on? This update will review current possibilities and others under discussion.
According to a data portal kept by the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), over 6 million Ukrainian refugees have been recorded across Europe since hostilities began in late February of 2022; and around 3 million people from Ukraine have sought formal legal protection in Europe or other countries during the same time period.
The main countries to which Ukrainians are fleeing are Germany, the U.K., Spain, and Italy.
If you're a Ukrainian who is already in the United States, whether legally or after a visa overstay, there are measures you can take to both protect your status in the short term and possibly stay for longer than originally planned, or even permanently.
Although playing by the rules of your current visa is likely the last thing on your mind right now, failing to do so could jeopardize your ability to remain in the United States. Fortunately, the U.S. government is offering ways for you to gain some flexibility in what's expected. See its Immigration Relief page for details.
If, for example, you are a student whose source of family support is gone, you can ask U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) to make a quick decision on your request for off-campus employment authorization; which is available to F-1 students experiencing severe economic hardship. USCIS is allowing some bending of the usual rules for students from Ukraine so that, for instance, you can reduce your course load in order to work more.
Of if you've overstayed a visitor or other nonimmigrant visa, and the war created a situation where you didn't apply for an extension on time, you might be allowed to apply late. (See, for more information, How to Extend Your Stay or Change Your Status While on a B Visa and Filling Out Form I-539 to Extend Nonimmigrant Status.
The United States typically offers two different types of humanitarian remedies for people who have arrived in the United States after having fled difficult situations: Temporary Protected Status (TPS) and asylum.
The Biden administration announced it is offering TPS to certain Ukrainians already present in the United States as of March 1, 2022. This is not a long-term grant of immigration status, but lets Ukrainians who were already in the U.S. on April 11, 2022 and who can meet certain other basic criteria (such as no criminal convictions) apply for a work permit and protection from deportation. (In other words, there's no point in traveling to the United States now and expecting to claim TPS; that won't work).
Ukraine's TPS designation officially went into effect on April 19, 2022, the date it was published in the Federal Register. See the relevant page of the USCIS website for instructions for applying. The registration period lasts from April 19, 2022 to October 19, 2023. For help, also see Filling Out Form I-821 for TPS and Filling Out Form I-765, Application for Employment Authorization.
Applying for asylum is also a possibility for Ukrainians already in the United States, and unlike TPS, has the potential to lead to a U.S. green card (lawful permanent residence) and ultimately U.S. citizenship. Approval for asylum is based on highly individual circumstances, however; fleeing a war of conflict is not enough by itself. You would need to prove that you were selected for persecution, or fear future persecution, by a government or forces beyond the government's control; and that you have been or will be targeted based on one of five grounds: your race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group. If Russia were to succeed in taking over Ukraine's government, then someone who's been a known vocal opponent of Putin, for example, or who was a member of Zelensky's government, would likely have a fine argument for asylum.
If you decide you might be eligible for asylum, speak to an attorney; many are currently mobilizing to offer free or low-cost services to people from Ukraine. Don't delay, there's a one-year deadline on applying for asylum (though exceptions can be made).
By virtue of having fled their country during war, many Ukrainians could currently be considered refugees. Countries around Europe and beyond are organizing to help them, with coordination by the UNHCR. For starters, that means supplying basic food, shelter, and other care.
To become officially recognized as a refugee, however, which can lead to long-term rights to live in another country, formal steps must be taken. For starters, people seeking refugee status must typically get themselves to a UNHCR office to initiate an application. The UNHCR will then help direct them to a particular country that's ready and willing to accept them.
There is no method of applying directly to the United States for refugee status, nor any guarantee of which country you'd be assigned to if approved by the UNHCR. (For detailed information on the application process, see How to Prepare and Submit a Refugee Application to the U.S.)
Unfortunately, the Trump Administration gutted the U.S. refugee program, lowering the number of refugees who could be accepted so such low levels that many resettlement agencies were forced to close their doors. The Biden Administration has been working to revive the program, including by raising the fiscal-year 2022 and 2023 cap on how many refugees can be resettled in the U.S. annually to 125,000.
In addition, under a program called "Uniting for Ukraine," the Biden Administration will accept 100,000 Ukrainian refugees to the U.S. through a legal designation known as "humanitarian parole" (as was also offered to some people who'd fled Afghanistan). Qualifying for this remedy will require financial sponsorship from a private source, such as a U.S. citizen, permanent resident, or other person with financial capacity and legal immigration status in the United States. Parolees age six months and older will need to show proof of a COVID-19 vaccination.
An approved entry via humanitarian parole comes with limited benefits, including a two-year U.S. stay and permission to work. This permission will be automatic ("incident to status") for the first 90 days of the parolees' stay, so long as they can present to employers an I-94 record with either a "UHP" of "DT" class of admission. After that, they will need to apply to USCIS for a work permit (employment authorization document or EAD), but the fee will be waived for the first one.
Parolee status does NOT directly lead to any permanent U.S. immigration status. (See What Is Humanitarian Parole?.) But Ukrainian parolees can, if eligible, apply for asylum or other immigration benefits (such as a family- or employment-based green card) once they're in the United States.
For more information directly from the U.S. Department of State, visit https://www.dhs.gov/ukraine.
The U.S. embassy in Kyiv has been closed for security reasons. Applying for a new visa or entry document is therefore not an option there.
If you can get yourself to some neighboring country, however, the U.S. government has stated that U.S. embassies there might be able to accommodate applicants for U.S. visas, particularly nonimmigrant ones. Obviously you might not meet the normal criteria for, say, a B-2 tourist visa or any of the various other nonimmigrant visas (such as for study or work). Those require proving your intention to return home at the end of your U.S. stay, which is a difficult matter if one has fled one's home; and U.S. officials are not bending the rules on this point.
With regard to family-based immigrant visas (for example, if you are the spouse or child of a U.S. citizen), the U.S. consulate in Frankfurt has been designated to handle these, while the U.S. embassy in Warsaw, Poland will be handling adoption cases.
If and when you visit the U.S. embassy or consulate, bring any and all personal identification documents you might have, ideally including a passport. (Nevertheless, U.S. embassy staff will understand and do their best to help if you've left such documents behind.)
As much as one might wish to join the fighting or try to personally rescue a Ukrainian family, it will ultimately be more effective to support the various agencies and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) that are expert at and equipped to help in such situations.
Your favorite charity might already be helping in some specialized way; for example, World Central Kitchen (founded by famed chef José Andrés) has set up facilities to feed people fleeing the war; the Humane Society International is helping save lost or abandoned pets there; and OutRight International, a global LGBTQ+ human rights organization, is accepting donations on behalf of local Ukrainian LGBTQ+ organizations that are assisting LGBTQ+ people in search of shelter, safety, and security.
Or you might choose to support one of the primary organizations providing broader sorts of assistance in Ukraine, such as:
Of course, if you have direct contact with anyone in Ukraine, it obviously makes sense to try to get in touch and offer support, whether financial or by directing them to authoritative sources of information. Also see the Department of State's page of Information for Nationals of Ukraine.