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U.S. will accept 100,000 Ukrainians fleeing war, Biden says

A Ukrainian child looks out of a car at the Romanian-Ukrainian border on March 24. (Daniel Mihailescu/AFP/Getty Images)
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BRUSSELS — President Biden on Thursday announced plans for the United States to accept 100,000 Ukrainian refugees, as well as others fleeing Russia’s war on Ukraine.

“Many Ukrainian refugees will wish to stay in Europe, closer to their homes, but we’ll also welcome 100,000 Ukrainians to the United States with a focus on reuniting families,” Biden said.

Administration officials said they are still working out the details of how the Ukrainians will be admitted, but their goal is to admit up to 100,000. They would be brought into the United States through a variety of legal pathways, including the conventional U.S. refugee program as well as more agile mechanisms such as “humanitarian parole,” which the Biden administration used for tens of thousands of Afghans last year during Operation Allies Welcome, said the officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity under ground rules set by the White House.

Humanitarian parole provides newcomers with temporary work authorization but not a pathway to citizenship, unlike the formal U.S. refugee program, which carries more legal benefits and protections.

Biden raised to 125,000 the number of refugees the United States is willing to admit during the current fiscal year, but his administration is on pace to receive only 15,000 as a result of processing backlogs and what officials describe as pandemic-related limitations.

Bringing in Ukrainians as humanitarian parolees or using other visa channels is likely to be quicker. White House officials did not provide a timetable for reaching the 100,000 goal. They said some Ukrainians probably will stay temporarily, until they can return home.

More than 3 million people have been forced to flee Ukraine; more than half are children. Their parents are trying to explain the war to them. (Video: Zoeann Murphy/The Washington Post)

Krish O’Mara Vignarajah, president of the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, praised the administration’s announcement as an example of “global humanitarian leadership.”

She urged U.S. officials to quickly ramp up refugee processing and expedite family reunification visas that would allow Ukrainian Americans to bring over their relatives.

“We’ll need to see how the White House views the breakdown of these figures and what resources and personnel they’ll put towards achieving what we view not as a ceiling but a target of 100,000,” said Vignarajah, whose organization has resettled about 5,000 Ukrainians over the past decade, roughly a quarter of all Ukrainians resettled in the United States during that time.

Biden — who is in Brussels on Thursday and part of Friday for meetings with NATO, the Group of Seven and European Union leaders — will also announce more than $1 billion in humanitarian assistance for those affected by the war. The White House on Thursday announced more than $11 billion over the next five years to help with food security threats.

Ukrainian Americans struggle to get fleeing relatives into United States

The arrival of 100,000 Ukrainians would be one of the largest resettlement operations in U.S. history, but the figure amounts to a relatively small portion of the more than 3.6 million displaced by the Russian invasion so far, according to the latest United Nations estimates.

Those Ukrainian refugees have largely been welcomed into neighboring European countries, where the European Union has issued a directive allowing all Ukrainians to travel visa-free within the bloc as well as work, and receive access to public education, housing and health care for one year.

Refugees fleeing other conflicts, including those in Afghanistan, Syria and Yemen, have, by comparison, found significant obstacles to accessing safe refuge in neighboring countries, and in Europe.

In recent weeks, hundreds of Ukrainians have traveled to Mexico, which does not require a visa, then attempted to enter the United States at ports of entry along the U.S. southern border. U.S. Customs and Border Protection has allowed them to enter on a “case-by-case” basis using humanitarian parole. Many appear to be joining relatives already living in the United States.

German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock on Monday called for the West to establish an “air bridge” to aid the escape of refugees.

Baerbock said she expects the upcoming effort to be the biggest relocation process since World War II. Despite the barrage of missiles and other artillery hammering every region of Ukraine, the established humanitarian corridors for Ukrainians to flee the country continue to function.

A U.S. official said the goal of U.S. and European officials is to distribute the refugees across the West — including across the Atlantic — to avoid overburdening any single country. The U.S. offer to take in 100,000 refugees evolved from a lower number earlier in the week, another official said.

Poland, with a population of 38 million, has taken in more than 2 million displaced Ukrainians. The population of the United States is nearly nine times larger.

In a fact sheet describing the initiative, the White House said it was “working to expand and develop new programs with a focus on welcoming Ukrainians who have family members in the United States.”

“The United States and the European Union are also coordinating closely to ensure that these efforts, and other forms of humanitarian admission or transfers, are complementary and provide much-needed support to Ukraine’s neighbors,” the document says.

Europe rewrote its migrant playbook for Ukrainian refugees. Some fear it’s not enough.

The second part of Biden’s three-day trip, a stop in Poland, will also focus on refugees. Poland, which shares a 330-mile-long border with Ukraine, so far has absorbed the largest influx of fleeing Ukrainians, and on Friday Biden plans to hold an event in that country addressing the refugee crisis, including meeting with humanitarian assistance experts.

Ukrainians have been well-represented in U.S. refugee admissions for several years, even becoming the third-largest source of refugees admitted to the United States under President Donald Trump — a trend that refugee advocates and experts attributed to a Cold War-era law that gives special preference to religious minorities, including Protestants, from the former Soviet Union, and Trump’s larger antipathy toward Muslim refugees and Muslim immigrants in general.

The United States admitted more than 1,900 Ukrainian refugees during Trump’s final year in office — about 16 percent of the total number of refugees admitted.

By contrast, critics say, the United States has admitted relatively few refugees from Afghanistan, Syria, Yemen and other war zones. In the past 17 months — even before the start of the Ukraine conflict, and as the Biden administration wound down the 20-year war in Afghanistan — the United States admitted more Ukrainian refugees (1,495) than it has Afghan refugees (1,005), according to State Department data.

A far larger number of Afghans have immigrated to the United States overall in recent years, most of them with special immigrant visas — those reserved for the Afghans who worked for the U.S. mission in Afghanistan.

The Biden administration also brought more than 76,000 Afghans to the United States after its chaotic exit from Afghanistan last summer, but refugee advocates have called for the government to do more. Tens of thousands of Afghans with connections to the United States were left behind, advocates say, and the vast majority of the evacuees to the United States were given only temporary protective status, as humanitarian parolees.

John Hudson in Washington contributed to this report.