The false promises of Biden’s Ukrainian refugee program

Associated Press/Evan Vucci
President Biden meets with Ukrainian refugees during a visit to PGE Narodowy Stadium on March 26, 2022, in Warsaw. The Biden administration said it would make it easier for refugees fleeing Russia’s war in Ukraine to come to the United States.

Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin vowed on April 26 that the United States would “move heaven and earth” to help Ukraine defeat Russia’s full-scale invasion of its territory. But the promise to move heaven and earth apparently does not extend to Ukraine’s humanitarian front. The Biden administration has hardly lifted a finger to support Ukrainian refugees. In fact, it has erected numerous barriers, seemingly to prevent Ukrainians from seeking refuge in the United States.

The administration’s Uniting for Ukraine program promised to make good on President Biden’s pledge to accept up to 100,000 Ukrainians fleeing the war. The program technically does that, but it adds needless hurdles to the United States’s notoriously slow immigration process. Under the auspices of the program, only a fraction of the millions of Ukrainians who lost their homes because of Russia’s bombardment are eligible, and those who are eligible will have a long wait ahead of them before they can enter the U.S.

Set up by the United States Citizen and Immigration Services (USCIS) under the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), the Uniting for Ukraine initiative offers eligible Ukrainians two years of “humanitarian parole” — temporary residency and a right to work in the United States. To qualify, potential parolees must have resided in Ukraine through Feb. 11, 2022 — 13 days prior to Russia’s full-scale invasion and the day that Biden told Americans to “leave Ukraine.”

This makes Ukrainians living outside of Ukraine at the time of the invasion ineligible; there were over 1.5 million Ukrainians temporarily living and studying in Poland in 2021. Many of them have had their homes destroyed by Russian forces or now live behind enemy lines. Ukrainian students in Warsaw or contract stevedores in Gdansk, for example, often lack long-term housing options and may have nowhere to go. But to USCIS, these people did not suffer enough to qualify as parolees.

Uniting for Ukraine also stipulates that any potential Ukrainian parolees must first be named by a U.S. sponsoring person or organization. That sponsor must complete an application, including proof of financial support, which then must be verified by USCIS staff. Only after a sponsor is cleared will the Ukrainian parolee be contacted to begin their side of the application process.

This is a needless roadblock that narrows the pool of potential applicants and slows the process. Only Ukrainians who are in contact with Americans with requisite financial resources have any chance of proceeding with their application. The United Nations estimates there are at least 5 million million Ukrainian refugees in Europe. Only a tiny proportion of these will have the necessary contacts to make Uniting for Ukraine a viable option.

In an insidious twist, the Biden administration has made Uniting for Ukraine the only method by which Ukrainians now can lawfully enter the United States. Since Russia’s invasion, almost 10,000 Ukrainians have entered the United States through Mexico and been allowed to stay under special humanitarian dispensation. Now, Ukrainians presenting themselves at U.S. ports of entry will be barred from entering and referred to Uniting for Ukraine, which itself seeks to inhibit Ukrainians’ lawful entry.

Moreover, because they are not being admitted through the traditional U.S. asylum system, refugees admitted through USCIS will not be offered a pathway to a green card or citizenship. Instead, at the end of their two-year parole, admitted Ukrainians will have to leave the U.S. or become undocumented. Consequently, all the work they have done to build a new life after the trauma of war and displacement will be undone and they again will be in legal limbo.

This echoes the obstacles that Afghan evacuees from Kabul faced last year, when they came to the U.S. under an expedited USCIS process. They, too, will face legal purgatory at the end of their parole. Although the circumstances are slightly different, the Biden administration has failed to learn from the Afghanistan debacle. Instead of simplifying and smoothing out its immigration policy, DHS has complicated the application process and shunted responsibility to individual Americans. Hidden under the administration’s seemingly tolerant rhetoric is a simple message to refugees: You are not wanted here.

But the Biden administration need not cling to its timid immigration policy. It has rare political cover regarding Ukraine — more than 78 percent of Americans support admitting 100,000 Ukrainian refugees, with only 21 percent in opposition. Compare that to 51/43 percent for Central American migrants in 2018 and 37/60 percent for Syrians in 2015. Ideally, immigration policy would provide similar support to Central Americans and Syrians, but admitting Ukrainians in a timely manner would be an easy political win for Biden.

Uniting for Ukraine can become a positive for Americans and Ukrainians. USCIS can drop stipulations on who can apply for humanitarian parole: All Ukrainians fleeing Russia’s war should be eligible to apply. DHS should begin work on a self-nomination process that Ukrainians can complete while they await sponsorship. This would take some time on the technical side, but an online portal that matches willing U.S. sponsors to prospective parolees would be a significant improvement.

Finally, Ukrainians who receive humanitarian parole in the U.S. should be put on a pathway to citizenship. Russia’s war in Ukraine may still be raging in two years’ time. Instead of forcing 100,000 Ukrainians back to Europe or creating a quagmire of undocumented migrants at home, U.S. policymakers should make every effort to integrate into American life those Ukrainians who want to stay. Ukrainian immigrants to the U.S. have become political leaders, military officers and entrepreneurs. The next generation of Ukrainian-Americans should be afforded ample opportunities to serve and succeed in their adoptive country.

Like the Trump administration before it, the Biden team has constructed its immigration policy around admitting the fewest number of foreign nationals as possible. When applied to Ukrainians or others fleeing war, this doctrine is morally and strategically wrong. The Biden administration has earned plaudits for its military support for Ukraine; it would do well to employ a similarly sensible immigration program for Ukrainians seeking refuge.

Andrew D’Anieri is an assistant director at the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center, focusing primarily on Ukraine, Central Asia and Russia. He served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Ukraine. Follow him on Twitter at @andrew_danieri.

Lillian Posner is a research associate for Think Global Health at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, focused on Eurasia. Follow her on Twitter at @LillianPosner.

Tags Biden Immigration to the United States Lloyd Austin Russian invasion of Ukraine Ukrainian refugees Uniting for Ukraine

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