Today, the Biden administration announced the launch of “Uniting for Ukraine,” a historic effort to welcome Ukrainians into the U.S. through various admission pathways — most prominently through humanitarian parole with a dedicated U.S. supporter. The full details have yet to be announced, but early indications are that the creation of this program is one of the Biden administration’s boldest immigration policy initiatives to date — one that opens up a transformative new feature of the U.S. humanitarian infrastructure.
The new Ukrainian pathway puts individual Americans at the center of the response to the refugee crisis by providing a flexible opportunity to directly welcome people forced to flee the conflict in Ukraine. The new initiative will enable the Ukrainian-American community and U.S. civil society at large — individuals, congregations, community groups, and charities large and small — to welcome and support thousands of Ukrainians across the country.
Here are four things you should know about this parole program right now:
#1: The Ukrainian parole program will be the largest sponsorship effort in decades
The Ukrainian parole program is not private refugee sponsorship per se, but an expansion of fiscal sponsorship within humanitarian parole status. Humanitarian parole is part of the U.S. policy toolkit long used to address emergency situations. Parole gives the administration the authority to admit any individual for a temporary period — up to 2 years — if their admission provides significant public benefit or satisfies an urgent humanitarian need. Beneficiaries of the Ukraine program will be welcomed by a supporter who will help facilitate their transition in the U.S. By tapping fiscal sponsorship as a formal pathway for displaced Ukrainians, the U.S. can welcome refugees into the U.S. in a quick and orderly manner while linking them with Americans who want to help them settle and support them financially.
Last year, the Biden administration launched the Sponsor Circle Program for Afghans through the Community Sponsorship Hub to allow groups of Americans to help resettle Afghans. But not since the early 1990s have the American people had the opportunity to be directly involved in resettlement at the scale contemplated by Uniting for Ukraine. Nearly 11,000 refugees were privately sponsored in 1990 during the height of the Private Sector Initiative. But given the scope of the displacement and level of interest among Americans now, it’s conceivable that these numbers could be eclipsed this calendar year.
A similar British program that allows sponsors to open their homes to Ukrainian refugees registered more than 200,000 interested participants. The nonprofit Welcome.us aims to mobilize 100,000 Americans to help Ukrainian newcomers, and Niskanen is proud to be a partner in that effort.
Depending on demand and interest from the American people, the potential exists for this to be an open-ended option for Ukrainians, punctuated by robust engagement from the large Ukrainian-American community. It’s the type of program advocates have requested for years, giving the American people the first true chance to show off their compassionate bona fides.
The open-ended nature of the program goes beyond calls for Ukrainians to resettle their family members and will allow any screened Americans to welcome Ukrainians. That feature maximizes who can serve as sponsors and how many refugees can ultimately be welcomed. The government should also quickly build out the capacity to allow for institutional sponsors, like universities, community groups, and corporations. Early indications suggest the program allows for individual sponsors or groups of individual sponsors but institutions with a sponsor lead should also be included.
#2: Congress needs to provide benefits and permanent status for those who want it
Parole is the quickest way for Ukrainians to enter the U.S., but it doesn’t provide long-term resettlement benefits or stability.
Parolees are not provided the same resettlement benefits as those who enter the country as refugees. Congress needs to provide some benefits to Ukrainians, like it did for Afghans last year, to ensure they get back on their feet after what they have been through. Republicans and Democrats have signaled interest in a supplemental appropriations bill supporting Ukraine’s war effort this summer, and language providing these benefits should be added to that legislation.
Parole lasts for a maximum of two years. After it expires, individuals who want to remain in the U.S. must apply for asylum (which may be tricky in its own right), but the current asylum backlog stands at more than 1.6 million cases, meaning these Ukrainians could remain on temporary status for many years while they wait for a decision from the backlogged immigration courts. A more expeditious approach is for Congress to pass legislation that offers permanent status to Ukrainians — similar to the Afghan Adjustment Act now pending in Congress.
Many Ukrainians will want to return to their country, and they will be urged to do so by a Ukrainian government that wants to avoid a generational brain drain. But those who do want to rebuild their lives here should be offered the opportunity, and Congress is the only entity that can make that possible in an expedited fashion.
Finally, Congress and the advocacy community need to hold the administration accountable for their stated goals. Through letters, hearings, and public statements, lawmakers must keep the pressure on the administration to ensure a full-throated response through the end of the conflict.
#3: Fiscal sponsorship expansion moves the administration closer to launching private sponsorship
It bears repeating that this parole program is not private sponsorship of refugees. In his February 2021 executive order on refugees, President Biden called for a private sponsorship program, and officials at the State Department have publicly and privately affirmed their plans to launch private sponsorship by the end of this year. The administration wants to tap into community engagement and unlock the potential for community groups to take a larger role in resettling refugees, including by identifying specific candidates for resettlement.
Last year, the government piloted some aspects of private sponsorship with the creation of the Sponsor Circle Program for Afghans. The announcement today of the fiscal sponsorship pathway will help lay more of the groundwork for the establishment of a formal private sponsorship program in the coming months.
This parole program for Ukrainians will not only demonstrate the desire and ability of Americans to directly welcome and support people seeking refuge in the U.S., but also build operational capability that can be transferred for the creation of domestic and international infrastructure needed to launch the private sponsorship program.
For example, the government may support creating the infrastructure to launch a “matching” program, where beneficiaries and sponsors can be matched via a portal. This would be enormously beneficial to Americans who want to help Ukrainians but don’t have any ties to the country. This portal could then be leveraged to support the launch of full private sponsorship, allowing the program to innovate faster and bolder.
The urgency of the moment is leading the government to rapidly design policy that would take significantly longer without the major push to welcome Ukrainians. Not only is this new initiative opening a new pathway to welcome Ukrainians, it’s advancing the private sponsorship infrastructure which in turn will greatly expand U.S. resettlement capacity in the long-term.
#4: Ukraine shouldn’t swallow the U.S. refugee infrastructure
As we’ve argued previously, we should not let the crisis in Ukraine overwhelm our entire resettlement program or prevent us from protecting other vulnerable populations. The Biden administration needs to make sure it’s resettling refugees who are persecuted and vulnerable and have been waiting in the refugee pipeline for years. We must meet the moment to resettle Ukrainians who are suffering unimaginable horrors, but we can’t forget about refugees from other prolonged conflicts that are featured less prominently in the news.
This is the time to rebuild the resettlement system and ensure the dismal resettlement totals of recent years are dramatically increased. The Biden administration needs to proactively bolster the resettlement program and launch private sponsorship so it’s not only responding to crises like Afghanistan or Ukraine. A good place to start is with the six recommendations in this brief from Church World Service.
President Biden has set a goal of welcoming up to 100,000 Ukrainians to the United States. The White House is putting its full weight behind enabling Americans to sponsor persecuted Ukrainians and initiating a pathway to welcome thousands in need of a safe haven.
With this new parole program, the American people have the first direct opportunity in the 21st century to show off their welcoming prowess. For years, other nations have pioneered sponsorship programs with great effects: mobilizing communities, resettling refugees, and showcasing their values.
I’ve argued since the Syrian refugee crisis that if Americans were given the opportunity to sponsor refugees we could collectively revitalize the refugee program like never before. Here’s our chance, and here’s a challenge to all Americans: If you have been stirred by the horrific images of bombed-out cities and mothers with children fleeing for their lives or the searing accounts of human rights violations by Russian forces, step forward and do what you can to welcome a Ukrainian to your community.
We may very well look back at Uniting for Ukraine as the moment when we planted the seeds for the future of the resettlement program, where sponsors and communities drive resettlement and refugees are welcomed into the U.S. with larger networks of friends and partners than ever before. This new initiative isn’t perfect, but it will save lives, reunite families, and build new community networks to ease Ukrainians’ transition to America.
It’s time to Unite for Ukraine.