In an average year, roughly 150,000 Russians will enter the U.S. as students, academics, pro athletes, investors or, most commonly, as visitors on tourism or business trips.
With a stroke of the pen, President Biden and his team could shut it all down.
As the U.S. searches for more leverage points against Russian President Vladimir Putin and his cronies in government and business, experts say the immigration system offers a juicy target.
“This is a way of sealing Russia in,” Emilio Gonzalez, a former head of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, told The Washington Times. “You can’t be invading countries and then expecting to travel to other countries on vacation. If they want to go on vacation, they should go to North Korea. I hear they have wonderful beaches.”
The State Department took a small step on Thursday, moving to “restrict” visas that might be issued for 19 oligarchs and 47 of their relatives and associates.
But there are plenty of other juicy targets the Biden administration could go after.
Travel visas for senior military leaders or the Russian diplomatic corps could be restricted in the same way oligarchs face. Thousands of visas granted to students could be blocked, and those already in the U.S. could be canceled. So could visas for hundreds of Russian athletes or others high-skilled positions.
Hockey fans have flooded social media sites with discussion about what would happen to the National Hockey League’s playoffs should Russian players’ visas be canceled.
The most enticing target for visa restrictions, Mr. Gonzales said, might be Russians who are seeking America’s investor visa, known as EB-5. The numbers aren’t big — about 60 people in 2019, the last full year before the coronavirus pandemic — but each of them had to pony up half a million dollars or more in investment cash.
“No ordinary Russian can come up with $1 million of disposable income without being connected somehow to the government,” Mr. Gonzalez said.
The Biden administration has joined a worldwide effort to push Russia out of the international financial system, which has crippled the ruble. Major western companies also have struck, with Apple pulling its products, Disney pulling its movies and Ikea shuttering stores.
On Capitol Hill, lawmakers are eyeing other moves. Support for cutting off U.S. purchases of Russian oil is growing, even as the Biden administration fears political backlash from soaring prices at the pump.
“I think we need to target their energy sector. I really do,” said Sen. Josh Hawley, Missouri Republican.
Several senators said they would like to see the U.S. target real estate held by Russian oligarchs. Russians are looking to sell, but thanks to sanctions they can’t find American buyers.
On immigration, experts said there’s no question Mr. Biden has the power to block all new visas for Russian nationals and even revoke visas already issued.
But targeting specific groups, like the oligarchs or government officials, is more likely.
Indeed, that’s been the course of action the State Department has used when it has slapped visa sanctions on countries that refuse to cooperate in deportation cases.
“These are very easy targets,” said Rosemary Jenks, vice president at NumbersUSA. “If it puts pressure on Putin, great. If it doesn’t, you can restart the program when this is all over.”
The U.S. is the world’s premier economy, the top tourist destination and, by far, the top pick for foreign students. That gives the government options that aren’t available to some other countries.
Or, as Mr. Gonzalez put it, “We’re a big country, we have a lot of things in our backpack we can use besides predators.”
In terms of temporary visitor visas, in 2019, the government granted more than 140,000 to Russians for tourism or business, more than 5,000 to students and their families, and about 750 to top-level scientists, entertainers or athletes and their entourages.
The government granted more than 500 more family-based immigrant visas and nearly 300 employment-based visas, including the 59 that went to wealthy investors in the EB-5 program.
Mr. Gonzalez said visa restrictions, in addition to sending a message, would have the very real effect of shutting off a “safety valve” for some well-connected Russians who might try to send their kids to the U.S. to study or to take a job in order to keep them from getting swept up in the war.
He said the U.S. doesn’t even need to cancel the permits.
“You just put them all on hold — an indefinite hold on EB-5 visas from Russia, an indefinite hold on student visas, the J visa for Russian kids coming to work at Disney World,” he said.
The State Department, in announcing the narrow set of sanctions against oligarchs this week, suggested it’s willing to do more.
“We will continue to add names to this visa restriction policy as long as individuals continue to support and carry out destabilizing activity on behalf of the Kremlin,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said.