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Biden administration rolls out plan for Ukrainian refugees

A woman arrives by bus on April 21, from Mariupol to a refugee center in Zaporizhzhia, Ukraine, after fleeing Russian attacks. (Leo Correa/AP)
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The Biden administration announced plans Thursday to expedite the arrival of Ukrainian refugees, creating a new system that will allow ordinary citizens and organizations such as churches to sponsor them, but officials also warned that Ukrainians attempting to cross via Mexico will be denied entry starting next week.

The announcement comes as more than 5 million people, upward of 10 percent of Ukraine’s population, have escaped to Poland, Romania and other neighboring countries, intensifying calls for the Biden administration to admit more into the United States. The administration is also anxious to control the fast-growing number of migrants from Ukraine and Latin America showing up unannounced at the southern border seeking entry.

President Biden pledged a month ago to accept as many as 100,000 Ukrainians, about 2 percent of the refugees, but the administration has not offered clear guidance on the process until now. Approximately 15,000 Ukrainians have arrived without permission over the past three months, mostly at the U.S.-Mexico border, senior administration officials said in a conference call with reporters Thursday, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss the new program.

The State Department and the Department of Homeland Security said they are creating a new “streamlined” program called Uniting for Ukraine that will grant most refugees “humanitarian parole” to come to the United States for up to two years, as long as they have a sponsor willing to support them. Officials also plan to expand permanent legal pathways under the existing refugee program.

The Department of Homeland Security said the temporary parole program will be the “safest and most efficient way” to come to America, and it warned that anyone who shows up without a visa at the nation’s ports or borders “will be denied entry.”

Border numbers jump in March, with striking increase in Ukrainians

Biden, who met with Ukrainian Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal in Washington on Thursday and announced expanded humanitarian and military aid, called the snowballing number of refugees an “absolute outrage.” He said the parole program means that Ukrainians “need not go through our southern border.”

“It will provide an expedient channel for secure, legal migration from Europe to the United States for Ukrainians who have a U.S. sponsor, such as a family or an NGO,” Biden said. “This program will be fast. It will be streamlined.”

Ukrainians cannot directly apply to the parole program. Instead, starting Monday, U.S.-based sponsors such as private citizens, churches and civic groups may apply online to the Department of Homeland Security to sponsor Ukrainian citizens. To be eligible for sponsorship, Ukrainians must have resided in their homeland as of Feb. 11, just before Russia’s Feb. 24 invasion, and pass security checks and meet vaccine requirements.

Sponsors also must clear background screenings and declare that they will support the new arrivals financially.

Officials said they will post information online and open hotlines to answer questions. One senior administration official estimated that the application process will be “fairly quick,” with some clear-cut applications going through the process in about a week; others could take longer.

Officials said organizations such as Welcome.US, an effort led by former presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush to aid refugees, are expected to help, along with a number of Ukrainian American civic and church groups and ordinary citizens.

Most refugees are expected to have relatives in the United States who could sponsor them, officials said. More than 1 million people of Ukrainian descent live in the United States, with significant numbers in states such as New York, California, Pennsylvania and New Jersey.

There are new migrants on the U.S.-Mexico border: Ukrainian refugees

Officials said they are also expanding consular and embassy operations in Europe to process more Ukrainians as permanent residents under the traditional U.S. Refugee Admissions Program. The Lautenberg program, for instance, offers refugee status to historically persecuted religious groups. Approximately 18,000 people were being processed in that program in Ukraine, and officials said that they are working to identify those who fled so that they can come to the United States.

The new plans were announced as the war in Ukraine nears the two-month mark, and the United States is contending with rising numbers of migrants from Latin America at the U.S.-Mexico border. DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas and Secretary of State Antony Blinken attended a migration summit in Panama this week to address the border influx, which is expected to rise even more after the U.S. government stops expelling border crossers on May 23 under a Trump-era public health order known as Title 42.

Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said the new program took us one step closer to restoring our role as a welcoming nation that protects the most vulnerable.”

The Biden administration has promised to create a more humane immigration system, and the president has said that the U.S. government would accept 125,000 refugees from all over the world this fiscal year, a major increase after the Trump administration pushed the program to record lows. The Biden administration has also admitted 76,000 Afghan allies, mostly on humanitarian parole, after the country fell to the Taliban.

Advocates for immigrants and refugees praised the expedited process but said they had a number of concerns. They said they hoped the Biden administration would broaden it to include other nationalities fleeing harm, such as Afghans who have not been admitted into the United States yet, and speed up refugee processing for all groups.

Only 8,758 refugees, despite the announced 125,000 figure, have been admitted in the first six months of this fiscal year, State Department records show.

Advocates also noted the sharp distinction between arriving as an official refugee and a parolee: Refugees are offered resettlement aid, job training, English classes and a path to U.S. citizenship, but parolees do not receive those benefits or protection.

“What’s going to happen when that temporary status expires?” asked Melanie Nezer, senior vice president at HIAS, one of the nation’s refugee resettlement organizations. “There is a concern that this would just add to the undocumented population here if Congress doesn’t act.”

In addition to aiding refugees, the Biden administration also has granted temporary protection from deportation to an estimated 59,600 Ukrainian noncitizens already living in the United States, but they must have been residing here as of April 11.