Student Advocates Seek Protected Status for Ukrainians Studying in U.S.

Ukrainians studying in the U.S. via student visas are at risk of being sent back to Ukraine without Special Student Relief.
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  • The federal government has yet to issue guidance for Ukrainian students in the United States.
  • Student advocacy groups have urged departments to grant special protections for these international students.
  • Different student visa types may require different accommodations.

As Russian forces escalate their attacks on Ukrainian cities, the 1,700 Ukrainian students studying in U.S. colleges and universities are asking one central question: Will I be forced to return home during a war?

Higher education and student-advocacy organizations are stepping up to support these students. Many are requesting that the Department of State and Department of Homeland Security (DHS) grant Special Student Relief (SSR) for Ukrainian students studying in the United States.

On Feb. 25, 177 organizations addressed a letter to the White House, DHS, and Department of State. The letter asked that all Ukraine residents in the U.S. be given Temporary Protected Status (TPS) and Deferred Enforced Departure (DED).

The letter-writing organizations also demanded SSR for students, which would have to come from DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas.

SSR suspends requirements like enrollment or maximum duration for those holding an F-1 student visa. According to DHS, the secretary may apply SSR during natural disasters, wars and military conflicts, and national or international financial crises.

The letter asks for an immediate 18-month SSR designation for Ukraine.

"The need for action supporting our Ukrainian allies has never been more urgent," Kristie De Peña, VP for Policy at the Niskanen Center, said in a statement. "Granting TPS, SSR, and DED designations for Ukrainian nationals is the only immediate response to the pending humanitarian crisis."

A coalition of 13 higher education-specific organizations sent another letter to DHS and the Department of State on Feb. 28 asking the departments to offer "flexibility" for Ukrainian students on F-1 or J-1 student visas. The letter also called for flexibility for Ukrainian learners completing F-1 Optional Practical Training (OPT) or J-1 Academic Training.

Sarah Spreitzer of the American Council on Education previously told BestColleges that J-1 visas are more popular among graduate and postdoctoral international students. F-1 visas are popular among undergraduates.

Jill Welch, senior advisor at the Presidents' Alliance on Higher Education and Immigration, said that while SSR only applies to F-1 visas, the Department of State could mirror that Federal Register notice to apply to J-1 visas, too.

According to the Open Doors 2021 report, 1,739 Ukrainian students were studying in the U.S. during the 2020-21 academic year. These include 877 undergraduate students, 529 graduate students, 48 non-degree-seekers, and 285 OPT students.

Advocacy groups weren't the only organizations to call on the federal government to weigh in on the situation facing Ukrainian students. A coalition of over 500 college and university presidents also called for SSR for this group and for broader TPS and DED for all Ukrainians in the United States.

The Migration Policy Institute estimates there are roughly 30,000 Ukrainians in the U.S. without U.S. citizenship or permanent status.

"International students from Ukraine will likely face significant obstacles and complexities in the coming weeks, months, and years," Miriam Feldblum, executive director of the Presidents' Alliance on Higher Education and Immigration, said in a statement. "Uncertainty over their courses or ability to remain in the United States should not be one of those obstacles."

So far, the Department of State has not offered any official guidance for international students in the United States. An official from the department shared the following statement on Friday:

"We value all international students here in the United States, including those from Ukraine. U.S. colleges and universities are dedicated to supporting all students' needs, and we encourage any students requiring additional support or guidance to request assistance from their host campuses."