Ukraine and Afghanistan Refugees in Washington Get Permission to Work Immediately


For seven months, Ivan Lopatskyi has been waiting for permission to work. Like thousands of Ukrainians who came to the U.S. fleeing the Russian invasion, the Everett resident's lack of official refugee status left him at the mercy of a backlogged immigration system slowly processing work authorization applications.

This week, Lopatskyi got good news. The U.S. Citizen and Immigration Services (USCIS), after being sued, announced it will allow Ukrainians and Afghans with "humanitarian parole" status to work immediately.

That's the status the U.S. gave many escaping the war in Ukraine and Taliban takeover in Afghanistan — considered refugees by many but not officially so because there was no time to go through the necessary bureaucratic deliberation.

They were, however, supposed to be treated like refugees, according to laws passed by Congress. And as a lawsuit in Illinois federal court points out, refugees are allowed to work as soon as they get here.

Lopatskyi, communicating by text and through his English-speaking 18-year-old daughter Ivanka, said he plans to re-contact a plant nursery that wanted to hire him after reading in The Seattle Times about his family's months-long journey to Everett and desire to work. The 42-year-old owned his own nursery in the western Ukrainian city of Rivne, an early bombing target, and traveledwith his wife and six kids to Poland and Mexico, arriving here in April.

"I don't know if they are still waiting for me to work," he said about the local nursery's owners. But he is hopeful.

So is Oleg Pynda, executive director of the Ukrainian Community Center of Washington. "This is amazing," he said of the rule change.

Pynda noted many Ukrainians, like Lopatskyi, have been waiting six or  seven months for work permits, although those arriving more recently have gotten approval in two to three months  — a discrepancy he attributes to a streamlined system for new applications.

Not having to wait at all is making many people happy, said Karina Dmitrieva, a community center staffer. She's been getting excited calls from people who have heard the news, wanting to know if it's true.

Ukrainians especially stand to benefit. Most of the roughly 80,000 Afghans who arrived recently in the U.S. spent months on military bases, where their work authorization papers were processed. By the time roughly 3,300 humanitarian parolees made their way to Washington, they were able to start working.

Ukrainians had no such way station, and have been applying for work permits when they get here. While they wait, they have been depending on government and nonprofit assistance, religious organizations and family members.

It's been one of the biggest issues confronting Ukrainians, who continue to arrive in large numbers, said Sarah Peterson, Washington's refugee coordinator.  While precise numbers are unavailable, government benefits data suggest roughly 12,000 Ukrainians came to the state between January and October.

One of the first stops for many is the Ukrainian Community Center in Skyway. Everyday, the center's 12 staffers has been helping new arrivals fill out work authorization applications.

Verzhynia Palamarchuk, 56, a former Ukrainian government worker, was there Tuesday, along with the daughter and two young grandchildren she lives with in Tacoma. Palamarchuk submitted an application in October, soon after arriving, but it was recently returned because the check marks by some boxes could not be clearly seen. She came to the center to get help in resubmitting the form.

Demitrieva told Palamarchuk she could look for work right away. Palamarchuk  was pleased.  "I need a job," she said, with the center's executive director interpreting. "I don't want to rely on someone else."

They would still resubmit the work permit application because of one catch of the rule change. It allows Ukrainian and Afghan parolees to work for a distinct period — 90 days after being hired — with just the form showing their immigration status. After that, they need to produce either an employment authorization document or an "unrestricted" Social Security card, given to people allowed to work, and a state driver's license or ID.

"A lot of people are saying how does this help us?" said Greg Siskind, a lawyer representing plaintiffs in the Illinois lawsuit, including some from Washington. Work permits still take longer than 90 days to process. And the Social Security Administration does not typically give unrestricted cards to humanitarian parolees, as it does to refugees, Siskind said.

He's trying to find out from the administration whether it is changing its policy to conform with the USCIS rule change.

"That's an excellent question," said Peterson, the state refugee coordinator, saying she would flag that concern with another federal agency that works with refugees.

The Social Security Administration did not immediately respond  to a reporter's request for clarification.

For those continuing to seek work permits, granted by USCIS, the rule change exempts Ukrainian and Afghan parolees from the $410 fee, beginning Dec. 5.

If the bureaucratic maze is confusing for would-be workers, so it is for employers.  Many might not know about the rule change, or understand its ramifications, Pynda said, adding that parolee status can be off-putting just because of the name.

In everyday usage, "parole means something bad," he said. "If you're on parole, you committed a crime."

But Bob Little, a recruiter for Huntwood, a cabinetmaking company headquartered near Spokane, heard about the rule change from a Ukrainian employee and pronounced it great news.

"We have lots of available jobs. Who doesn't?" Little said, referring to an acute labor shortage that has gripped the country since the COVID-19 pandemic.

Huntwood is a Christian, family-owned company with a full-time chaplain on staff, Little said. When the Russians invaded Ukraine, Huntwood began reaching out to a Spokane based resettlement agency and others with connections to those arriving from Ukraine.

Little said Huntwood wanted to hire people desperate to start new lives, and also with what he called "an old world work ethic," willing to stick around for a decent job rather than always looking for the next one. A number of immigrants from Slavic countries and elsewhere already work for the 800-employee company, which has showrooms throughout the Puget Sound, Idaho and Montana.

Up until now, Huntwood's recruitment efforts among new arrivals have been  largely stymied by the work permit backlog.

Theoretically, the rule change could help new arrivals from Afghanistan, too. But there's one enormous problem, said Ghulam Mohmand, a board member of the Kent-based Afghan American Cultural Association: "Afghans are not getting into the U.S."

The program to evacuate and quickly admit Afghans ended in late September, with many endangered by the Taliban left behind. Others got out but are stuck in Pakistan, the United Arab Emirates and elsewhere, with pending applications to enter the U.S.

That's the situation of Mohmand's parents, who are in Pakistan with expired visas, unable to get new ones unless they return to Afghanistan — a dangerous proposition given Mohmand's work for the U.S. military and embassy in Afghanistan. He's sponsored them for a family-based immigration visa to the U.S. and has yet to hear back.

Mohmand said he's happy for those helped by USCIS' turnaround. But when it comes to Afghans, he said: "I don't think the job is done."