The U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) launched a new program on Monday, Uniting for Ukraine, designed to quickly resettle up to 100,000 Ukrainians in the U.S. While human rights advocates applauded the new program, they criticized the method through which Ukrainians will now be granted to entry to the country.
Under the new program, Ukrainians will be allowed to enter the U.S. under an ad-hoc DHS-run channel known as humanitarian parole. It is entirely separate from the U.S. Department of State’s Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP), which was severely undercut by the Trump Administration. Unlike those granted admission under USRAP, Ukrainians admitted under humanitarian parole may not receive the benefits of refugee status, which include a pathway to citizenship, work authorization, and an avenue to reunite family members who remain abroad. Humanitarian parole does not guarantee access to health care or other access to safety net programs, which confers a huge financial burden to a desperate population.
Krish O’Mara Vignarajah, President and CEO of Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, a refugee resettlement organization, described Uniting for Ukraine as “a concrete step forward,” but criticized the Administration for “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.”
The Administration’s decision to utilize humanitarian parole in this case offers a window into the depth of dysfunction at USRAP, which, since Trump, has granted entry to historically low numbers of refugees. In fiscal year 2021, under Trump, it capped admission to just 15,000. Biden increased the cap for FY2022 to 125,000 refugees, but is on track to only admit 20,000 at its current pace, according to the Migration Policy Institute, a nonpartisan research organization. With USRAP essentially on the sidelines, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), an agency under DHS, has become the de facto refugee processor of the U.S. government.
The Biden Administration has used humanitarian parole to resettle tens of thousands of migrants, nearly all of whom would normally qualify as refugees. That includes more than 76,000 Afghans since August 2021, and hundreds of families in cases where a parent was deported without their children during the Trump Administration’s Zero Tolerance policy. In a typical year, USCIS receives about 2,000 humanitarian parole applications; since at least July 1 it has processed tens of thousands.
Ukrainians represent clear-cut example of a typical refugee population. They are fleeing Russia’s war, which has has killed 2,345 civilians and injured 2,919 as of April 20, according to the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. Five million people have fled Ukraine since the start of the war, according to the UN Refugee Agency.
President Joe Biden announced Uniting for Ukraine on April 21. The Administration had previously committed, on March 24, to accepting up to 100,000 Ukrainians, but did not offer details as to how they would be processed into the U.S. In the meantime, Ukrainians have been arriving by the hundreds at the U.S.-Mexico border, attempting to gain entry to the U.S. by seeking asylum. Asylum cases are processed by USCIS, not USRAP.
“We are proud to deliver on President Biden’s commitment to welcome 100,000 Ukrainians and others fleeing Russian aggression to the United States,” said DHS Security Alejandro Mayorkas in an April 21 public 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.”
Melanie Nezer, senior vice president for global public affairs at HIAS, a refugee resettlement organization, cheered the new program, but warned of trouble to come. “Uniting for Ukraine will be an important mechanism to allow Ukrainians to reunite with their loved ones in the United States, but it is not a panacea,” she said in an April 21 public statement. “Humanitarian parole creates yet another group of people who are forced to live in limbo, without any sense of permanency. HIAS will continue to urge the administration to rely on the U.S. refugee resettlement program to respond to refugee emergencies rather than using parole, a system that is wholly insufficient in ensuring that new arrivals have access to the support and a sense of choice and control over their futures offered through resettlement.”
Through Uniting for Ukraine, people and entities in the U.S.—including citizens, permanent residents, visa holders, and NGOs—can sponsor Ukrainians abroad who were residents of the Eastern European country as of February 11, DHS says. The Ukrainians hoping to enter the U.S. through the program must also complete vaccinations and other public health requirements, and pass rigorous biometric and biographic screening and vetting security checks, according to DHS. Once that criteria is met, they can travel to the U.S. to apply for humanitarian parole, which will be granted on a case-by-case basis and would last for two years, DHS adds. Once humanitarian parole is granted, Ukrainians will be eligible for work authorization.
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Nezer tells TIME that the Uniting for Ukraine program may not work for those who don’t already know a sponsor in the U.S. “People who have contacts in the U.S., people who have family members here, or colleagues, or friends, or an employer may quickly get some relief,” Nezer says, “but people who don’t have those contacts, but who may be the most vulnerable, may have to wait longer.”
DHS adds that Uniting for Ukraine is intended to complement refugee processing and other channels to the U.S., but Nezer questions why the U.S. once again opted to process a displaced group of people through humanitarian parole over USRAP. It also typically takes an act of Congress to remedy the shortfalls of humanitarian parole.
“The plan can’t be to admit people on a temporary status and then just wait for them to become undocumented and hope that Congress acts,” Nezer says, noting that Congress has yet to act on a bill that would create a pathway to citizenship for the 76,000 Afghans who have also arrived in the U.S. under humanitarian parole.
Now that Uniting for Ukraine has launched, DHS says, Ukrainians should not continue to travel to the U.S.-Mexico border. From March 11, Ukrainians arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border have been exempted from a policy that keeps most other nationalities from requesting asylum in the U.S. known as Title 42. Now Ukrainians will be denied that exemption and will instead be referred to the Uniting for Ukraine program.
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