Nearly 3 million people have fled Ukraine for neighboring nations as the Russian invasion continues to fuel Europe’s fastest-growing refugee crisis since WWII. Despite our geographic distance, the United States must meet this historic challenge by providing a safe haven for Ukrainian refugees, supporting our allies and partners in the region that are welcoming the greatest numbers of refugees, and continuing to demonstrate that we stand firmly behind the people of Ukraine.
Earlier this month, the editorial board at the Washington Post asked the question on the minds of many Americans: why isn’t President Biden taking in refugees from Ukraine? The answer is more complicated than anybody would like. A review of potential U.S. humanitarian visa programs that could be available to Ukrainians quickly turns into a crash course on the thorny issues that permeate our immigration system and reveals the true extent of its limitations. Months after the arrival of tens of thousands of Afghans and still emerging from the effects of the pandemic, our immigration system is enormously bogged down.
Delays, backlogs, caps, and other restrictions turn the clear-cut moral and strategic case for resettling Ukrainian refugees into a practical, logistical, and bureaucratic nightmare.
David Strashnoy, a Los Angeles immigration lawyer and former consular officer who was born in Ukraine, told Roll Call,“for displaced refugees, there really isn’t a natural visa category.” This unfortunate reality needs to be met with creativity from immigration officials in the Biden administration to find and deploy as many innovative resettlement options as possible. Here are some ideas for how to make that happen.
Pathway #1: The Lautenberg Amendment
Last week, Congress voted to reauthorize the Lautenberg Amendment, which would help relocate roughly 4,000 Ukrainian religious minorities to the U.S. The Lautenberg process hinges on religious persecution but is also dependent on applicants having a close family member in the U.S. Allowing family members to aid these refugees during their transition into America gives them a valuable foothold.
Though it’s not comparable to the resettlement numbers other countries are welcoming, it would be life-saving for its beneficiaries. The government should offer expedited processing for this class of refugees, and then seek to allow new applicants to apply to the program.
There is precedent for this. The Clinton administration expedited adjudication of Kosovar refugee applications and allowed them to finish their processing at Fort Dix in New Jersey.
Pathway #2: Expedited processing for all petitions
U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) should expedite the processing for all immigration petitions of Ukrainian nationals. The U.S. should fast-track any Ukrainian with a pending immigration application — a fiance visa, a work visa, or a family-preference visa — to ensure they can arrive safely and quickly in the United States. USCIS should surge resources and personnel to pluck out any Ukrainian stuck in any backlog and examine how they could speed up their processing, especially at consulates in Poland, Romania, Germany, and Hungary.
HIAS has called on the Biden administration to admit Ukrainians with pending petitions, arguing that it “has been done in the past for Iraqis and Haitians during crises in their countries.”
Pathway #3: Humanitarian parole
Writing for The Hill, Alberto Gonzales, former attorney general for President George W. Bush, argues that the administration should utilize humanitarian parole to welcome Ukrainians. Humanitarian parole allows individuals entry to the U.S. for a temporary period if their admission provides significant public benefit or they have an urgent humanitarian need.
Normally, the parole option would be an obvious answer, but this might be the single worst moment for pursuing parole in recent memory. Years of underfunding and a lack of staffing at USCIS has allowed a backlog of parole applications from Afghans to overwhelm the system, meaning that new applicants should expect at least 6 months for adjudication.
Not only are there growing backlogs of parole cases — into the tens of thousands — but parole offers only a temporary, two-year status. When parolees arrive in the U.S, they must apply for asylum, which offers permanent status. Though these claims are likely to succeed, the 1.6 million cases currently in the asylum backlog will undoubtedly stall the process.
The combination of parole and asylum backlogs means this pathway could bring people to the U.S., but will fail to deliver stability for years. Congress is yet to pass any permanent immigration status for Afghans who arrived last year, and we can imagine similar intransigence for Ukrainians.
While this solution addresses the urgent needs of a potentially large population, it only provides temporary status accompanied by years of uncertainty.
Pathway #4: The U.S. Refugee Admissions Program
Contrary to popular belief, the U.S. resettlement system was not built to provide immediate protection for refugees. Our robust screening and security process has ballooned to last well over a year and a half, and in many cases, more than two years. Simply put, the U.S. refugee system can’t resettle the exiles from Putin’s war very quickly. So, the U.S. should provide expedited processing to Ukrainians who already had pending refugee applications, and fly them to U.S. military bases in NATO countries to finish their processing.
Of course, this only aids a small population, but it’s a concrete step towards welcoming refugees who have been vulnerable for a considerable amount of time, even prior to the current invasion.
The Biden administration is reportedly planning an expedited refugee processing program for Afghans that could be expanded to include Ukrainians, although a timetable for launch of that program is unclear. That program could have the potential, if scaled properly, to protect larger numbers of Ukrainians.
Pathway #5: Protect Ukrainian kids
By and large, the timeline for refugee processing is reflective of the expansive and comprehensive security checks undertaken by the U.S. and our international partners, but children do not pose the same security risk and can be processed significantly faster.
Right now, children represent about half of the refugees fleeing Ukraine. For many with parents fighting in Ukraine, children need protection from other close family members, some of who may be in the U.S. In order to protect Ukrainian children with families in the U.S, the Biden administration should launch a version of the Central American Minors (CAM) program.
Similar to the Kindertransport program from World War II, getting the kids out of harm’s way is a chief priority for families. Many families won’t want to send their children to the U.S. when they could wait in Europe, but for some, it could provide a necessary outlet, especially for particularly vulnerable children. They would be offered humanitarian parole and could stay in the U.S. until the war is over, when Congress could provide a pathway for them to regularize their status, or return home.
Alternate policy options
There are additional mechanisms the U.S. should pursue simultaneously, including:
- Issuing Special Student Relief (SSR) to the estimated 2,000 Ukrainian students currently studying in the U.S. SSR extends flexibility to students while their countries experience emergency circumstances.
- Preventing the expulsion of Ukrainians under Title 42, the public health order which allows the government to expel asylum seekers due to Covid-19. Last week, Customs and Border Protection reportedly expelled a Ukrainian mother and daughter in San Diego under Title 42. The decision was later reversed. New guidance should be issued immediately to prevent expulsion of these vulnerable populations, whose asylum cases obviously warrant protection.
- Expand the Sponsor Circles program to allow community groups to directly resettle Ukrainian refugees. So far the program is only authorized to link community groups with Afghans, but its expansion is now necessary given the Ukraine crisis.
In the longer term, the U.S. should also:
- Increase the European regional refugee cap and add Ukrainians as a Priority 2 group in the next presidential determination signed at the end of the fiscal year;
- Accept Russian defectors who apply for refugee or asylum status;
- Provide more funding to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services to process new and backlogged parole applicants (both Afghans and Ukrainians);
- Fund humanitarian aid to Poland and other front-line countries in eastern Europe; and
- Launch full private sponsorship so Americans can help resettle Ukrainian and other refugees.
The U.S. immigration system provides no easy policy mechanisms for quickly resettling large numbers of Ukrainians. It’s an indictment of the entire immigration system — a system too rigid to respond to emergencies like the one we’re seeing right now. We do have limited mechanisms to assist those who were already in the system in some way prior to Putin’s invasion, and we should welcome all those applicants and finish their applications as soon as possible.
But it’s much harder to find ways to identify and refer new refugees to come here in the short term, especially those without existing family ties to the U.S.
Ultimately, the resettlement system is too slow, the asylum system too backlogged, the parole system too temporary, the Lautenberg system too narrow. Our routine humanitarian channels won’t deliver a robust, historic resettlement of Ukrainians absent some massive shot in the arm that requires Congressional funding and would take substantial time to get systems up and running.
The options for Ukraine are subpar because the immigration system is subpar. It failed Syrians, it’s failing Afghans, and it’s about to fail Ukrainians unless the Biden administration and Congress get creative and muster the political will to rise to this historic moment of displacement and desperation.