The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion We sponsored refugees under a new Biden program. The results were astonishing.

Ruslan Hasanov, Maya Hasanova and their 2-year-old daughter, Melissa, on Dec. 14, their first day in the United States. (Ilya Somin)
5 min

Ilya Somin, a law professor at George Mason University, is the author of “Free to Move: Foot Voting, Migration and Political Freedom.”

Nine days after my wife and I submitted the sponsorship forms, the U.S. government authorized admission to three Ukrainian refugees — Ruslan Hasanov, his wife, Maya, and their 2-year-old daughter, Melissa. Less than five weeks after that they were here. This is little short of a miracle to those of us who have long lamented the sclerotic state of the U.S. refugee system.

The next step is for Congress and the Biden administration to work together to turn that miracle, with some critical improvements, into the norm. And not just for Ukrainians.

The brutal Russian invasion has forced more than 7 million people to flee Ukraine, creating the largest European refugee crisis since World War II. In response, the Biden administration established Uniting for Ukraine, a private refugee-sponsorship program that enables Ukrainian migrants to enter the United States far more easily than is possible under the conventional refugee admission system.

The speed and ease of entry accomplished under Uniting for Ukraine are an impressive achievement, especially by the glacial standards of U.S. immigration bureaucracy, where visa and refugee applications routinely languish for many months or even years. Private sponsorship is the crucial innovation. Under Uniting for Ukraine, Ukrainians can enter the United States and live and work here for up to two years, so long as a U.S. citizen or permanent resident agrees to sponsor them, to help with bureaucratic issues and to provide a degree of financial support (the amount is largely left up to the sponsor and migrants to decide) via a form submitted at the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services website.

Since April, at least 94,000 Ukrainians have entered the United States under the program. By contrast, the conventional refugee admission system, which relies on the government-approved agencies to resettle and support refugees, only admitted 25,400 people from around the world during all of fiscal 2022. The refugee admissions process has long been slow and cumbersome, but things became even worse when President Donald Trump slashed annual admissions quotas, undermining the system in ways the Biden administration has so far largely failed to fix. There is no real evidence that excruciatingly long wait times promote security or have other benefits.

My wife and I decided to become Uniting for Ukraine sponsors, because I am an academic with expertise in migration issues, an advocate of expanded migration rights and a native speaker of Russian (which many Ukrainians also speak); my wife’s grandfather was himself a Ukrainian immigrant. The Hasanovs and I found each other through Welcome Connect, a website that matches potential U.S. sponsors with Ukrainian refugees.

The family’s experience exemplifies that of many other refugees. They fled the town of Irpin, near Kyiv, shortly before it was taken by Russian troops. They narrowly escaped a horrific occupation that included the torture and murder of hundreds of civilians. Even so, they endured bombing and shelling by Russian forces. Maya and Melissa were eventually able to find temporary refuge in Spain; Ruslan returned to Irpin after it was recaptured by Ukrainian forces, but he found it impossible to resume normal life.

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Opinion writers on the war in Ukraine
Post Opinions provides commentary on the war in Ukraine from columnists with expertise in foreign policy, voices on the ground in Ukraine and more.
Columnist David Ignatius covers foreign affairs. His columns have broken news on new developments around the war. He also answers questions from readers. Sign up to follow him.
Iuliia Mendel, a former press secretary for Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, writes guest opinions from inside Ukraine. She has written about trauma, Ukraine’s “women warriors” and what it’s like for her fiance to go off to war.
Columnist Fareed Zakaria covers foreign affairs. His columns have reviewed the West’s strategy in Ukraine. Sign up to follow him.
Columnist Josh Rogin covers foreign policy and national security. His columns have explored the geopolitical ramifications of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine. Sign up to follow him.
Columnist Max Boot covers national security. His columns have encouraged the West to continue its support for Ukraine’s resistance. Sign up to follow him.


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Henry Olsen

counterpointBe careful, Biden. You might be inviting a challenge from the left.

Having heard about United for Ukraine from friends, they decided to come to the United States, where there is more openness to migrants than in many European countries, and, as Maya put it, there are people from many backgrounds and all are “equal … regardless of nationality, skin color or religion.” Her words would have warmed the heart of George Washington, who envisioned America as “an Asylum for the poor and oppressed of all nations and religions.” We don’t always live up to these ideals, but survey data shows that Americans are more racially tolerant and open to ethnic diversity than citizens of almost all other nations.

Despite its virtues, Uniting for Ukraine still has two major shortcomings.

First, the residency and work permits last only two years. Experience shows that many refugees need permanent homes, not just temporary ones. Permanence also enables them to make greater economic and social contributions to our society.

Second, the program is largely the product of executive discretion. If the political winds shift and President Biden (or a successor) decides to terminate it, participants could be subject to deportation. Congress should pass legislation to permanently fix these flaws.

The program could also be improved by further simplifying the paperwork, some of which I found confusing and duplicative. Refugee-assistance charities should consider providing linguistic assistance to potential sponsors who don’t speak Russian or Ukrainian; they could potentially recruit volunteer interpreters from immigrant communities in the United States.

The virtues of this new approach, however, are self-evident — and highly scalable. Going forward, Uniting for Ukraine should serve as a model for refugee policy generally.

The Biden administration has already created a similar program for migrants fleeing Venezuela’s repressive socialist government, though it has a numerical cap of only 24,000 participants. The Venezuelan refugee crisis is of comparable magnitude to the Ukrainian one, with some 6 million Venezuelans fleeing. Later this year, the administration plans to create a more general private refugee sponsorship pilot program, though details remain unclear.

Ultimately, the United States should establish a general system of private refugee sponsorship, modeled in part on Canada’s successful program, that applies regardless of nationality. Doing so would not only help people escaping war and oppression, but also bolster our economy — migrants contribute disproportionately to economic growth and innovation — and enhance the U.S. image in the international “war of ideas” against dictators such as Russia’s Vladimir Putin. By building on the success of Uniting for Ukraine, we can simultaneously advance America’s interests and live up to its highest ideals.