The Biden administration’s strategy of accepting fleeing Ukrainians through methods outside the U.S. refugee program will leave tens of thousands of people navigating life in the U.S. without the help or resources that refugees are typically offered.
President Biden has committed to taking in 100,000 Ukrainian refugees who have fled Russian aggression.
But the administration acknowledged Thursday that the bulk of those refugees won’t be coming in through the formal program dedicated to those fleeing violence.
Instead, many will enter the country through a humanitarian parole program established this week that allows Ukrainians to stay in the country for up to two years, with officials temporarily waiving immigration requirements for Ukrainians who can secure U.S.-based sponsors.
“We’ve heard widely from Ukrainians that they really are seeking a kind of temporary refuge in the U.S. with family, with other individuals they have connections with,” a senior administration official told reporters this week.
“So that program will probably be the majority of the 100,000,” the official added.
The acknowledgement renews questions about the Biden administration’s progress in rebuilding the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program, which atrophied significantly under the Trump administration.
But it also has raised concerns about what aid will be given to Ukrainian refugees who will not have legal status as refugees and no permanent path to reside in the U.S.
“The refugee resettlement program is right in front of them for this population, and they’re swerving around it, and I’m not sure why,” said Melanie Nezer, senior vice president for public affairs at HIAS, formerly known as the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society.
“The U.S. government is saying that it can do all the security vetting that’s required and the health screenings and the vaccinations in a relatively short period of time [for the parole program]. … Why can’t the government do that for refugee resettlement, which is a status that gives people control over their futures?” she added.
The humanitarian parole program may get Ukrainians to the U.S. faster than the refugee program would, but that speed comes with sacrifices.
“I think that the two key drawbacks are the temporary nature of the admission and the lack of any support services,” Krish O’Mara Vignarajah, president of Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, told The Hill.
“We’re talking about Ukrainian refugees who have gone through so much trauma, many have fled with just a small knapsack, and they’re coming to a new country, in some cases to start a new life. And the idea that we’re outsourcing the responsibility to help is strange,” she added.
Their experience will differ significantly from the experience of those who reach the U.S. through the refugee program.
“We work with local resettlement affiliates around the country who do the work of literally welcoming families at the airport, making sure they get connected to housing, schools, employment, medical services, and then there is short-term cash assistance for people because many refugees come here literally with nothing,” Nezer said.
Some also offer help learning English, writing resumes and getting connected with jobs.
While perhaps the bulk of Ukrainians will enter the country through the humanitarian parole program, many are already here, having crossed at the U.S.-Mexico border. Ukrainian nationals have been exempted from Title 42, which has largely been used to expel Central American migrants without letting them apply for asylum.
According to data obtained by CBS News, at least 10,000 Ukrainian migrants had entered the U.S. this way starting in February through April 6 — a figure that has likely grown since then.
In its call with reporters, administration officials said the parole program will be “self-selecting,” as many Ukrainians may not want to stray far from loved ones. It is also limited to those who can secure sponsors who are willing to attest they can financially support the parolee.
Yet some Ukrainians have already shown up at different agency offices, and refugee resettlement organizations have had to explain they are not technically eligible for assistance.
Refugee resettlement agencies are contracted by the U.S. government to provide those services and receive federal funding to do so.
Vignarajah said that’s left her organization doing private fundraising to open a few welcome centers.
Elissa Diaz, associate director of policy and advocacy at Church World Service, another resettlement agency, said they are pushing for the government to authorize assistance for Ukrainians, but that would take an act of Congress, “which would likely need to be accompanied by the necessary funding.”
In the long term, advocates are also concerned about what will happen to Ukrainians as the war drags on.
“This whole argument that ‘this is temporary, and it’s only for Ukrainians who want to be temporarily in the United States’ just kind of ignores the reality, which is that as much as people want to go home, they may not be able to,” Nezer said.
Relative safety in Ukraine is not likely to be seen in weeks or even months, she said, while rebuilding the country will take years.
And the U.S.’s use of humanitarian parole for Afghanistan has highlighted the lack of political will when it comes to addressing their needs. Some Afghans were given humanitarian parole periods of just one year and are set to lose their status as early as August.
“Humanitarian parole can be extended, but there’s no path to permanent status unless Congress acts, and, you know, Congress hasn’t acted on the Afghans yet. So there’s a concern that this temporary status will not be resolved, and it’s inevitable that some people will not be able to go home or not want to go. That’s historically how it’s worked,” Nezer said.
Administration officials said they will still resettle some Ukrainians through the refugee program, pointing to a specific program for religious minorities known as the Lautenberg program.
But there too lies a problem.
Officials said they are seeking to make contact with some 18,000 Ukrainians already in the pipeline for refugee status through the Lautenberg program. Yet in March, they resettled only 12.
The U.S. has also resettled just 8,758 people so far this fiscal year, a far cry from Biden’s goal of 125,000.
Vignarajah said the program needs to be fixed, not short-circuited.
“Refugee resettlement is a system created in the principle of the Cold War, and it ought to be the means by which we protect vulnerable people fleeing war and violence at the scale of what Putin’s scorched-earth strategy has done. But it’s also a system that’s set by backlog. And when the average time for refugee applications to be processed is five years, that time frame doesn’t work for those fleeing for their lives,” she said.
“We’ve seen in the last year humanitarian parole used as the principal response in two humanitarian crises. I think that reflects that we are turning to Band Aid approaches instead of fixing the broader system,” she added.
In preferring parole however, Nezer said they’re also taking away agency from Ukrainians.
“As much as people want to go home, they may not be able to, and then what? The administration doesn’t answer ‘And then what?’ The refugee resettlement program … gives people a path to a permanent status, certainly allows them to go home if conditions change, but it also allows them to establish their lives and their children’s lives in the United States and plan for a future,” she said.
“It gives them a choice,” she added.