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Immigrant advocates call for protections for undocumented Ukrainians

People huddle together in the cold; some are draped in Ukrainian flags. A couple at the center of the photo holds a poster that says, "World, Ukraine needs help."
Elaine Thompson
The Associated Press
Ivan Kalashnyk holds his wife, Kate Kalashnyk, during a demonstration at Seattle Center on Thursday, Feb. 24, in response to Russia's invasion of Ukraine. The couple moved together from Ukraine to the Seattle area two years ago.

With the Russian invasion of eastern Europe, immigrant advocates are calling on the Biden administration to grant protections to undocumented Ukrainians already in the United States.

In times of crisis, the federal government can grant foreign nationals temporary protections that allow them to work, and deportations can be deferred. For example, two designations — Temporary Protected Status and Deferred Enforced Departure — have been used recently to help people from a variety of countries in turmoil, including Venezuela, Haiti and Syria.

Now, advocates are demanding that people from Ukraine get those same protections so they won’t be forced to return to a region torn by war.

Sergey Zhovtonizhko, 42, is being held at the ICE detention facility in Tacoma. He says he came to the U.S. 30 years ago, when Ukraine first declared its independence after the fall of the USSR. Now he’s afraid ICE will make him go back.

“I definitely don’t want to go back. People are dying, shooting, killing each other,” Zhovtonizhko said in a recent interview from detention.

Zhovtonizhko says he has a green card but was picked up by immigration officials after serving seven months in prison.

Experts estimate there are tens of thousands of Ukrainians in the U.S. who could benefit from temporary protections.

There are roughly 50,000 to 100,000 Ukrainians living in Washington state, one of the largest Ukrainian immigrant communities in the country.

Vitaliy Chmukh, 27, is also detained at the ICE detention facility in Tacoma. He says he came here about 20 years ago, when he was a child, because of religious persecution in his homeland.

“I mean, I fear to go back. It’s scary what’s going on. It’s a war zone," Chmukh said in an interview from detention. "I’m afraid to go back over there. I don’t know what I will do; I don’t know where I will end up, or how it’s going to be. I know that if I stay here, I’ll be safe over here."

When asked whether there is a possibility that Ukrainian immigrants would be granted certain protections, the Department of Homeland Security said it continues to monitor conditions around the globe but had no announcements to make at this time.

The Department of Homeland Security determines which countries qualify for Temporary Protected Status. The president is responsible for Deferred Enforced Departure.

Locally, the Seattle Office of Immigrant and Refugee Affairs has joined other advocates in calling for protections.

Lilly Ana Fowler covers social justice issues investigating inequality with an emphasis on labor and immigration. Story tips can be sent to