The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

TPS for Ukrainians is good. But our selective approach to refugees excludes many.

Granting just temporary protected status to Ukrainians risks repeating a mistake from the 1930s

Demonstrators in Chicago protest the Russian invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 27. (Jamie Kelter Davis/Bloomberg News)
6 min

Heeding calls by advocates, former immigration officials and U.S. lawmakers, President Biden will grant temporary protected status (TPS) to Ukrainians, an immigration status that could help about 30,000 Ukrainians residing in the United States by suspending deportations to their war-torn homeland.

As policymakers debate the fate of Ukrainians in the United States and abroad, a largely forgotten law from 1934 offers important lessons on how the nation ought to respond to this new refugee challenge. That law allowed approximately 2,000 undocumented Russians in the United States to adjust their immigration status and become legal immigrants between 1934 and 1935. The narrow scope of the law made it politically viable at a time of extreme xenophobia. But it also established an unfortunate precedent whereby the exclusionary logic underlying the nation’s immigration restriction laws came to shape the development of immigration relief.

With the collapse of the Russian Empire, the rise of Soviet Russia after the 1917 revolution and the ensuing civil war, hundreds of thousands of opponents of the new regime fled political persecution and crossed multiple national borders in search of safety, shelter and sustenance. Many were so-called White Russians, specifically members of the anti-Bolshevik White Army and their civilian supporters. By 1921, the League of Nations implemented measures that afforded the exiles some degree of protection and mobility and, by 1933, designated them as refugees under international law.

Although their refugee status enabled them to resettle in countries throughout the world, many believed that a better life was to be found in the United States. Here, they hoped to escape the discrimination they encountered in their European countries of first flight. Such discrimination prevented them from finding jobs and attaining citizenship, as Michael Honig (formerly Mendel Honigman) observed. “It was very difficult to become a citizen [of Romania] and being a refugee it was hard … so I decided to come to the United States.”

Yet the United States had in 1921 and 1924 erected significant barriers to their admission. Reflecting American prejudices against southern and eastern Europeans, the quota system created in the 1920s decreased the number of immigrants allowed from these nations while increasing the quotas for arrivals from northern and western Europe.

In Harbin, China — where Russian refugees thirsted for news about Russian immigrant life and any loosening of American immigration laws — one Russian journalist wrote in a Russian-language newspaper: “[Russians, Poles, and Italians] are the nationalities which assimilate poorly and who give few or poor ‘Americans’. For British, Germans, and Scandinavians, who easily come under the influence of Americanism the respective quotas have been lowered but slightly. America does not fear these.” As a result of these restrictions, by 1926, a Russian refugee seeking a quota visa would need to wait 10 to 15 years for 18,000 other applicants to receive their visas first.

Instead of waiting, most Russians sought alternative modes of entry. According to one 1934 estimate, half of the Russian refugees then in the United States managed to gain admission as visitors, entertainers and students on temporary visas. The other half made the conscious choice to enter in violation of the immigration laws as deserting seamen or through a surreptitious border crossing from Canada or Mexico. Many of the former, however, eventually became unauthorized immigrants by failing to renew their temporary visas. In short, as they would openly admit to immigration inspectors during their legalization proceedings, they were undocumented immigrants in America.

While most lived untroubled by the immigration authorities, the onset of official diplomatic relations between the United States and the Soviet Union in 1933 raised the possibility that these once stateless people could be deported to the U.S.S.R. where they would face persecution and even death. Considering the widespread antisemitism that was blocking efforts to admit European Jews fleeing Nazi Germany, the Russians’ advocates, lawmakers who had long opposed the discrimination against southern and eastern Europeans perpetuated by the quota laws, decided against lobbying for refugee legislation to protect them. They reasoned that doing so might be perceived as opening the gates to unwanted immigrants.

Instead, these lawmakers chose to downplay their refugee identity and highlight their status as undocumented immigrants who deserved legalization and U.S. citizenship after living in the United States for nearly a decade.

An immigration liberal, Sen. Royal Copeland (D-N.Y.), introduced a bill of limited scope to accomplish this. As one congressman explained on the floor of the House, “this bill does not do anything except to enable a number of Russian refugees who are in this country, to adjust their status under our immigration laws.”

The legalization measure passed with strong support from both pro- and anti-immigration forces. Indeed, legislators such as Rep. Thomas L. Blanton (D-Tex.), who staunchly defended the national origins quota system of 1924 and the application of severe civil and criminal penalties to undocumented Mexican immigrants, changed their tune when it came to unauthorized Russians.

While Blanton characterized Mexicans as invaders and accused them of “taking away jobs from American citizens,” he justified the Russian legalization. “It is a bill for Americanism and against Bolshevism. It is a bill for lovers of constitutional government instead of Russian Bolsheviks, and this is why I am for it.” For immigration restrictionists like Blanton, the Russians’ anti-communist ideology erased their anxieties about their putative racial inferiority and illegality.

While the law was originally intended to assist a small group of Russians, its beneficiaries ultimately included members of those ethnic groups, including Ukrainians, Jews, Germans, Poles, Latvians, Lithuanians and Armenians, who had been absorbed into the former Russian Empire during centuries of war and conquest.

The June 8, 1934, law was a harbinger of things to come. Until the end of the Cold War, U.S. refugee policy served the nation’s geopolitical interests by privileging the admission of people from communist and incipient-communist states. Also like the Act of June 8, 1934, this highly selective approach to refugee admissions excluded many from access to asylum and reinforced the anti-Latino and anti-Black racism that long informed the nation’s refugee and asylum policies.

Today, the Biden administration faces a challenge like that faced by advocates of the Russian refugees during the Great Depression. Then and now, lawmakers are asking the question of how they might provide Ukrainians in the United States with meaningful forms of relief in a moment of widespread xenophobia. In the 1930s, Congress capitulated to the forces of nativism when it opted to spare thousands of undocumented Russians from an uncertain fate in the Soviet Union while disregarding the humanitarian needs of European Jews and Mexican nationals. Whether the Biden administration can overcome the legacies of the past by providing robust forms of immigration relief to White and non-White asylum seekers remains to be seen. In the meantime, Ukrainians, Afghans, Haitians, Mexicans and Central and South Americans, among many others, wait — often in dangerous conditions — to be deemed worthy of protection and relief.