The Biden administration on Thursday announced it is moving to fast-track Ukrainian refugees coming to the United States.
President Joe Biden heralded the plan as "fast" and "streamlined" to protect Ukrainians fleeing Russia's war, but it will do so on a temporary basis and require financial support from a U.S. sponsor -- drawing criticism from some refugee resettlement groups who called for Ukrainians to receive more permanent refugee status.
The U.S. would accept up to 100,000 Ukrainian refugees, Biden announced in Brussels last month, amid the fast-growing refugee crisis in Europe since the end of World War II. Nearly 8 million Ukrainians have been displaced by the war, the United Nations announced Thursday.
Beginning April 25, the administration says U.S.-based individuals and entities can apply to the Department of Homeland Security to sponsor Ukrainian citizens -- in an operation dubbed "Uniting for Ukraine."
Any U.S. citizen or entity can apply sponsor Ukrainians and will be required to declare their financial support and pass a background check. Administration officials said there is no limit on how many Ukrainians a person or entity can sponsor.
"We are proud to deliver on President Biden's commitment to welcome 100,000 Ukrainians and others fleeing Russian aggression to the United States. The Ukrainian people continue to suffer immense tragedy and loss as a result of Putin's unprovoked and unjustified attack on their country," Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas said in a statement. "DHS will continue to provide relief to the Ukrainian people, while supporting our European allies who have shouldered so much as the result of Russia's brutal invasion of Ukraine."
The administration anticipates a "large majority" of Ukrainians using the program will apply through family in the U.S. already, a senior administration official told reporters Thursday.
But a group of nearly 70 Ukrainian-American community groups, religious organizations, refugee resettlement agencies, and other nonprofits, backed by a $3.6 million donation from the Wall Street bank Goldman Sachs, also announced Thursday they would help U.S. citizens sponsor Ukrainian refugees.
Ukrainians with a sponsor must meet certain conditions -- being a resident of the war-torn country since Feb. 11 and up to date on vaccinations. They will also be subject to a background check and biometric screening and other security checks, according to the Department of Homeland Security.
Once in the U.S, Ukrainians will have up to two years to be considered for parole, but officials said they anticipate the length of time in the U.S. to be short-term. The program will not provide a pathway to permanent residency in the U.S.
"What many of us have heard out in the region in Eastern Europe is a lot of Ukrainians don't even want to go further east, from the border countries in Eastern Europe, because it's a situation where women and children are separated from their husbands, fathers, brothers, and so they're quite keen staying near Ukraine to return as soon as possible," a senior administration official said.
Administration officials told reporters on Thursday they hope it will be a "streamlined process" through an online portal where sponsors and Ukrainian nationals can both upload documents after being approved.
They said they anticipate the process to be "fairly quick," but didn't offer an exact timeframe.
Ukrainians who don't have a visa to enter the U.S. will be encouraged to apply for this program as they say it's the safest way to enter the U.S., officials said.
In recent months, some Ukrainians seeking asylum in the U.S. have been traveling to Mexico and arriving at the U.S.-Mexican border -- 3,274 in March alone, according to data from DHS.
But the administration announced that after April 25, when the new parole program goes live, Ukrainians who present themselves at a border port of entry will be denied entry into the U.S. like other nationalities.
Ukrainians "may be refused entry under our existing laws. As I think everybody knows, we are continuing to enforce the public health authority under Title 42 at the land border to the 23rd [of May]. That will be the case for all nationalities," one senior administration official said.
Title 42, the public health authority deployed by the Trump administration, expelled migrants on the basis of the COVID-19 pandemic, but Ukrainians had been largely exempted by DHS because of Russia's war.
But now, with the policy set to be phased out by the administration on May 23, there are heightened concerns of a sharp increase in migration to the southern border.
For Ukrainians fleeing the violence, but who don't have sponsors in the U.S., the administration said it is working with NGOs and nonprofits to connect people.
Welcome.US, a nonprofit created during the evacuation of Kabul to assist Afghans fleeing the Taliban, announced Thursday it is working alongside Ukrainian-American community organizations, refugee resettlement agencies, and religious leaders to support the program.
With $3.6 million in funding from Goldman Sachs, the group will help U.S. citizens that want to sponsor Ukrainians and allow folks to donate to support local nonprofits assisting Ukrainians or provide Airbnb or airline miles for those traveling to the U.S.
But some of those refugee resettlement groups are expressing concern about the administration's plans, especially the short-term legal status these Ukrainian refugees are getting and the requirement that sponsors assume financial responsibility.
Doing so is the administration "outsourc[ing] its moral obligation to support newly arrived Ukrainians. Without access to traditional refugee resettlement benefits, we urge policy makers to consider implementing some semblance of a safety net for those rebuilding their lives from scratch," said Krish O'Mara Vignarajah, president and CEO of the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service. LIRS is one of the largest U.S. resettlement agencies, but is not involved in the Welcome.US program.
Other refugee groups expressed concern that the administration is not doing enough to address the systemic issues with the country's refugee resettlement program. As part of Thursday's announcement, the State Department will expand resettlement operations in Europe for Ukrainian refugees -- helping up to 18,000 resettle in Eastern European countries, including those considered most vulnerable like the LGBTQ community.
But the resettlement program in the U.S. was decimated by Trump-era budget cuts and restrictions that refugee advocates said were onerous. While Biden has announced big targets for refugee resettlement before -- including an admissions ceiling of 125,00 for this fiscal year -- his administration has fallen far short of those targets.
Halfway through this fiscal year, they have resettled 8,758 refugees -- a fraction of that 125,000 goal -- according to State Department data.
"Relying on temporary parole amounts to putting bandages on open wounds. The administration cannot continue to lurch from one crisis to another without increasing overall capacity for permanent protection in the United States," said Sunil Varghese, Policy Director at the International Refugee Assistance Project, a legal advocacy group.