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Opinion An innovative U.S. program faces daunting Ukrainian refugee challenge

Ukrainians arrive at a shelter on April 21 in Tijuana, Mexico. (Gregory Bull/AP)

Facing a European refugee crisis unprecedented since World War II, the Biden administration has unveiled a new program to admit Ukrainians fleeing Russia’s assault by allowing U.S. citizens and groups to financially sponsor them here. The program, which would resettle and grant work permits to the refugees for two years, is innovative and ambitious. It may also be inadequate.

It is difficult to overstate the scale of the exodus from Ukraine. Well over a quarter of the country’s population of 44 million people has been driven from their homes — some 6.5 million displaced inside the country during the war’s first month alone and another 5 million refugees who have fled to nearby nations.

U.S. allies in Eastern Europe are buckling under that influx, which has overwhelmed schools, housing and social services. President Biden, mindful of Washington’s burden of leadership, said a month ago the United States would do its part by welcoming up to 100,000 refugees in this country. In fact, that number, presented as a ceiling, might need to be revised upward.

The sponsorship program begins this week, but already some 15,000 Ukrainians have been admitted, most having crossed from Mexico into the United States with a grant of humanitarian “parole,” meaning permission to stay and work in the country for a year or two. Another 18,000 were in a preexisting refugee pipeline under a U.S. program that grants expedited resettlement to religious minorities in former Soviet republics, including Ukrainians. Those numbers count toward the ceiling of 100,000, U.S. officials said. That means just 67,000 slots are left.

They might go quickly. In the United Kingdom, programs established in the past weeks to resettle Ukrainian refugees have already received more than 100,000 applicants and are struggling to keep up. In Canada, which has a large population of Ukrainian descent, more than 60,000 refugees applied for resettlement in the war’s first five weeks. More are sure to seek entry; Canada has imposed no caps.

Most Ukrainians want to return home. In fact, it might be years before many are able to reconstruct lives in a country whose economy has been decimated, and major cities pulverized. U.S. officials, mindful of those scenarios, say they are prepared to reassess the 100,000 ceiling depending on demand. They should also be ready to revisit the program’s two-year limit — the likelihood is that many Ukrainians might need refuge far longer.

In the meantime, the administration faces a critical test. In its first 15 months, it has failed miserably to resettle more than a relative handful of refugees through normal channels that were, in fairness, decimated by the Trump administration. It is now preparing to try a new method, purpose-built for Ukrainians, in the face of a refugee outflow that has grown by 2 million in the month since Mr. Biden announced the United States would open its doors.

For the new program to work, U.S. officials must quickly screen and vet American sponsors as well as the Ukrainian refugees they agree to host, and grant travel authorization without delays. The United Kingdom, which stumbled in launching its programs, now says it aims to cut processing times to 48 hours. U.S. officials should take note.

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