Liliia Kravtsova fled the Ukrainian seaport city of Odesa as bombs exploded and people died, leaving behind her law practice and seeking safety in the United States.
She’s not a lawyer in this country, where she lives with an aunt, uncle and cousin in Huntingdon Valley. In fact she’s not working at all — she’s not allowed. It will be months before she gets official government permission to take a job.
“People are forced to look for illegal work,” said Kravtsova, 28, who arrived here in May, “and face many risks.”
The problem is simple, its ramifications huge: Ukrainians like Kravtsova are being welcomed into the United States amid the destruction of the Russian invasion, then stuck waiting for work authorizations that will allow them to support themselves.
That’s left people struggling to pay for food and housing, and straining their relationships with friends and relatives who never envisioned hosting long-term dependents. It’s made it impossible for newcomers to send money to help their families in the war zone, kept workers away from employers who are desperate to hire, and deprived local, state and federal governments of tax revenue at a time of endless pandemic.
It also prevents Ukrainian immigrants from stepping more fully into American life at a time when it looks like more will need to stay longer than they intended.
“People are pleading for some help,” said New York immigration attorney Olha Khomyak, a leader in a newvolunteer Ukraine Immigration Task Force that’s focused on the issue. “Ukrainians need this authorization not in eight months or 10 months, they need it now.”
Some Ukrainians have taken off-the-books, cash-paying jobs. That leaves them vulnerable to exploitation, attorneys said, and, if discovered, can hurt their chances of securing legal immigration status later on.
No one involved thinks U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, the federal agency that processes employment permissions, is deliberately slowing the process. But USCIS and other arms of the immigration system face unprecedented backlogs.
A USCIS spokesperson said the agency is working to speed and streamline the employment-approval process even as it confronts record numbers of applications and a diminished workforce, with about 4,000 jobs vacant across the agency.
Its efforts include increasing the length of time that permits are valid, from one to two years, so people won’t need to apply as often and the agency doesn’t spend time processing those extra forms.
More than 1.5 million work-permit applications were pending at the end of 2021, according to the agency. Total, pending applications for all USCIS services shot up 66% in three years, from 5.7 million in September 2019 to 9.5 million in February of this year, according to the Migration Policy Institute in Washington.
“USCIS has always had its share of backlog issues,” agency Ombudsman Phyllis Coven wrote to Congress last month, “but none so severe in recent memory as the ones it currently confronts.”
The new federal budget aims millions of dollars at culling the backlog, an impact yet to be felt.
Today the average wait for a work permit is eight to 10 months. That means even Ukrainians who arrived as the United States began opening its doors could still be waiting next year.
About 90% of new arrivals are women and children. Advocates fear some women may be forced to do “whatever they can to get money, and sometimes that means doing things we hate to think about,” said Anne Smith, an immigration attorney in Washington who serves as task force policy director.
The group, composed of about 100 lawyers and non-profit groups, wants the Biden administration to act fast to help Ukrainians, many of whom escaped with nothing.
Today the United States offers haven to about 180,000 Ukrainians, a big number in terms of recent immigration, and barely a ripple among the 9.1 million who have fled a war that’s provoked the largest humanitarian crisis in Europe since World War II.
The Biden administration’s “Uniting for Ukraine” program, announced in April, allows up to 100,000 Ukrainians to come live with family members and sponsors and to qualify for work permits. In March the White House granted Temporary Protected Status to Ukrainians already in the United States, barring their deportation and offering work authorizations to up to 59,600 people.
The U.S. also admitted 20,000 Ukrainians who arrived at the southern border before ending that practice in late April.
Philadelphia immigration Ricky Palladino said none of his Ukrainian clients are receiving work approvals.
“We don’t know how long it’s going to take,” Palladino said. “Six months, nine months, we just don’t know.”
As the war drags toward its sixth month with no resolution in sight, more Ukrainians are realizing they may need to stay and start over in this country.
Valentyn Khimchuk and his girlfriend, Roksolana Tokarevych, both 21, want to return to Ukraine, but the war makes planning impossible. They arrived in the U.S. on July 8, moving into the home of an uncle in Northeast Philadelphia. Six days later they applied for work permits.
“We heard more than half a year,” he said.
They work remotely for a Ukrainian company, designing software, but say those jobs won’t last. And they want to comply with all U.S. tax and immigration laws.
“We have some savings,” Khimchuk said. “But we need to have a work permit to work in the USA for a USA company.”
Russia invaded on Feb. 24. From March to June, more than 71,000 Ukrainians arrived in this country, and as of last month another 23,000 had been approved to travel, according to the Department of Homeland Security. Few arrivals have received permission to work at a time when the U.S. has 11.3 million job openings and 5.9 million unemployed, nearly double the number of available jobs than people to fill them.
“They come here and they say, ‘Why can I not work?” attorney Khomyak said. “Ukrainians are hard-working people. They do not want to rely on somebody.”
Smith, the policy director, said the task force suggests a simple fix.
Currently, newcomers who file for employment authorization receive an automatic reply email. That reply could be adjusted to include a temporary work permit, Smith said. The permit could serve as legal proof while USCIS processes the formal application.
“Why do we make it so difficult?” Smith said. “Why are we making it so hard to do something that’s a win-win for everybody?”
Kravtsova, the lawyer from Odesa, fled as Russian warships rose on the Black Sea horizon.
Her job vanished in the war. And her savings were running out. She went to Hungary, then Israel and Poland, coming here when family members in the U.S. offered sponsorship and a place to stay.
She arrived on May 24, counting on quickly finding a job to support herself, to help relatives in Ukraine and to donate to the Army.
“I sent my application, but I haven’t got this work authorization,” she said. “I know I can’t be a lawyer, but I want to have a qualified job. It’s very important to me.”