In April, the Biden administration released the much-anticipated “Uniting For Ukraine” initiative. This landmark program enables individual Americans to sponsor displaced Ukrainians, ultimately fast-tracking family reunification. More than 45,000 Americans signed up as sponsors in the five weeks since the program launched, underscoring our national commitment to aiding individuals fleeing from the conflict.
Despite the Biden administration’s quick turnaround in creating the refugee sponsorship program, it had faced significant criticism for failing to offer access to refugee benefits and a path towards permanent residency. While the program still doesn’t offer a pathway to citizenship, Congress did vote last month to extend access to standard refugee benefits for the Ukrainians coming via the program.
Meanwhile, the refugee sponsorship program’s many strengths have been largely ignored by most immigration advocates. Flaws notwithstanding, the program will still enable perhaps one hundred thousand Ukranians to arrive in the U.S. over the next year. And after five weeks, the Ukrainian sponsorship program is on pace to become the most significant community-driven sponsorship effort in decades.
Uniting For Ukraine will make concrete advancements to modernize aspects of our immigration system and will be critical in informing other programs that help populations seeking refuge in the future.
The program gives qualified Ukrainians an expedited process to enter the country if they have a U.S.-based sponsor pledging to support them and ease their transition. The government will vet both beneficiaries and sponsors, with no cap on either. This is unprecedented, and exactly the kind of forward-thinking policymaking needed in the face of a crisis.
There are several yardsticks against which we can measure Uniting For Ukraine’s long-term implications. First, of course, is how many Ukrainians the U.S. welcomes and how many sponsors get involved. So far, more than 6,500 Ukrinians have arrived in the U.S. under the program and an additional 27,000 are authorized to travel and will arrive within 90 days. More than 45,000 sponsors have applied to sponsor — that’s more than 1,000 per day submitting their paperwork since program launch.
Perhaps less obvious, but just as important, is how it will inform and influence other migration programs. For example, by building off Uniting for Ukraine’s template, the timeline for launching private refugee sponsorship programs this year — including campus sponsorship — may be significantly accelerated. With the necessary operational capacity already in place, we can more quickly resettle refugees from anywhere in the world. Uniting for Ukraine can therefore also be seen as a launching pad, as it is essentially testing private sponsorship’s many complex logistics. And 45,000 sponsor applications in five weeks is proof of concept the American people want to get more involved in the resettlement apparatus. Ultimately, launching full private sponsorship will lead to the permanent resettlement of more refugees from conflicts beyond just the war in Ukraine.
It’s also worth noting that the Ukrainian refugee sponsorship program differs starkly from its predecessors thanks to its 21st-century infrastructure. Sponsors can apply online and communicate with immigration agencies through an online portal. Beneficiaries, meanwhile, aren’t relegated to a specific embassy or consulate for processing. Rather, they can obtain travel documents and board a flight from Warsaw, Mexico City, or anywhere else. This much-needed modernization and the prioritization of flexibility can be used going forward, replacing the paper forms and snail mail that contributed to past immigration programs’ glacial pace.
What’s more, the portal designed for Uniting for Ukraine to match sponsors and beneficiaries can be modified to apply to different, future migration streams. For example, it can be tweaked to match skilled visa applicants with employers looking for talent.
It has been decades since the U.S. last undertook a private sponsorship effort of this caliber. The height of that program — in 1990, during which the U.S. sponsored 11,000 refugees — will be eclipsed in the coming weeks. More Ukrainians will arrive in the first three months of Uniting For Ukraine than arrived in the full six years of the Private Sponsorship Initiative that was operating from 1988 to 1993. This historic infusion of community engagement will ultimately lead to more resources and better outcomes for displaced people.
Uniting for Ukraine is not without flaws. Still, those standing in opposition without acknowledging its myriad potential benefits risk committing a cardinal sin in public policy: letting the perfect be the enemy of the good. Critics shouldn’t overlook the considerable upside of a program that provides a pathway where a vetted, displaced Ukrainian can arrive at a local airport in mere weeks — especially when millions of Ukrainians are displaced internally and millions have fled the country.
Failing to acknowledge the many benefits and potential roadmap for improving future immigration programs will ultimately be counterproductive to the shared goal of helping as many displaced individuals as possible long term. Uniting For Ukraine can reinvigorate our refugee program, showcase our country’s values, and lead to one of the largest mobilizations to support displaced people in our recent history. Muddling that message and rendering this program irreparably flawed will be a grave disservice to the individuals who seek refuge and those who want to help them. Advocates should instead seek to build on Uniting For Ukraine to leverage the early success of the Ukrainian refugee sponsorship program and encourage the administration to leverage the infrastructure that now exists to aid other refugee populations in need.
Edward Shapiro is the Managing Trustee for The Shapiro Foundation. Matthew La Corte is a government affairs manager at the Niskanen Center in Washington.
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