As Russian troops intensify their invasion of Ukraine, southern Brooklyn Council member Inna Vernikov, a newly elected Republican, has become the go-to media voice for New York City’s sizable Ukrainian-American community — walking a fine line as she advocates for refugees in a party with a tense relationship to immigration.
Over the last week in appearances on television and on the floor of the Council chambers in City Hall, Vernikov, a Ukrainian immigrant herself, has used her new profile to channel support for Ukrainians and their relatives in New York. On Tuesday, she met with officials from the mayor’s office to discuss how they might help. An Adams spokesperson declined to discuss Vernikov’s comments in the “private” meeting.
“I stand with the people of Ukraine as well as with my constituents, who still have family and friends and ties to their homeland,” she said in a speech last week. “My office stands ready to assist in any way we can.”
On social media, Vernikov has solicited donations for refugees fleeing violence and lauded city efforts to help more Ukrainian-Americans get their family members to safety in New York.
An immigration attorney and former Democrat, Vernikov won office in November, one of a handful of Republicans who took over formerly Democratic-held Council seats. Her district sprawls from Manhattan Beach and Sheepshead Bay up to Midwood where former president Donald Trump dominated in the 2020 election, improving dramatically on his 2016 performance.
Vernikov ran as an avowed supporter for Trump, whose administration worked to slash refugee admissions at a time when conflicts in Syria, Yemen and elsewhere sent millions fleeing, and hamstring those seeking to exercise their right to seek asylum.
- Questions regarding refugee status and getting US Citizens and non citizens out of the war zone should be addressed with your Congressman/Congresswoman. Their offices are working to help expedite visa requests and we can help make that connection for those in need.— Councilwoman Inna Vernikov (@InnaVernikov) March 2, 2022
During her Council campaign, Vernikov eagerly accepted support from Donald Trump Jr, who issued a robocall for her noting that she stands for “putting our country first.” Upon taking office, the Council member has been a vocal opponent of the extension of voting rights for undocumented New York City residents.
New York immigration rights advocates say they welcome increasing bipartisan support for assistance to Ukrainian refugees, but questioned why such calls are restricted to those suffering from this particular conflict.
“It’s great that these elected officials are calling for the kinds of protections that our migration and refugee system should provide,” said Camille Mackler, Executive Director of the Immigrant Advocates Response Collaborative, a New York coalition of legal service providers. “But it’s important to remember that those should apply equally to all who are fleeing persecution and seeking the protection that the United States can offer.”
Vernikov is not the only New York Republican now proclaiming public support for refugees.
Earlier this week, on an appearance on the NY1 program “Inside City Hall,” GOP gubernatorial nominee Lee Zeldin expressed sympathy for Ukrainian refugees, suggesting that the U.S. had a “responsibility” to help them.
“They have loved ones. They have family members. They’re going to reach out to their government,” Congressman Zeldin said. “They’re going to make strong cases for people who want to come here and live free and I think we should be very sympathetic to that case.”
Yet in Congress, Zeldin co-sponsored legislation designed to bar federal funding for resettlement initiatives for Syrian refugees fleeing violence from the country’s ongoing civil war.
Asked about this seeming about-face, Zeldin said on NY1 that Ukraine was different. “I don’t have the same level of concern about the documentation that can be provided from a Ukrainian refugee as I would from someone who is fleeing a destabilized Syria that was destabilized for a long time,” he said.
Neither Vernikov nor Zeldin responded to requests for comment.