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Uniting for Ukraine: Federal program aims to resettle refugees in order to discourage entry from Mexico

President Joe Biden’s administration has announced a new program on April 21 that will make it easier for Ukrainian refugees to be resettled in the United States, as the Russian offensive in their home country continues.

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) said in a statement that the “new streamlined process” will allow Ukrainians to apply for humanitarian parole, a status that does not provide a pathway to residency or citizenship, but allows people to stay and work in the U.S. for two years.

To be eligible for the program, dubbed “Uniting for Ukraine,” they must have been residents in Ukraine as of February 11, have a sponsor – a person or entity – in the U.S., complete COVID-19 vaccinations and pass security checks, the department said. It is formally launching on April 25.

The move came after Biden announced last month that the U.S. would take in up to 100,000 Ukrainians fleeing the war. More than five million people have fled Ukraine since Russian President Vladimir Putin launched an all-out invasion in late February, with most seeking refuge in neighboring countries in Europe.

“We are proud to deliver on President Biden’s commitment to welcome 100,000 Ukrainians and others fleeing Russian aggression to the United States. The Ukrainian people continue to suffer immense tragedy and loss as a result of Putin’s unprovoked and unjustified attack on their country,” DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said in the statement on April 21.

But at the same time, the department discouraged Ukrainians from trying to enter the U.S. through its southern border with Mexico, where thousands of refugees have been amassing in makeshift camps and other facilities in recent weeks.

Authorities had been allowing Ukrainian refugees in at the border on humanitarian grounds, exempting them from a restrictive policy known as “Title 42” that has been used since 2020 to turn away most other asylum seekers seeking U.S. protection.

“Following the launch of Uniting for Ukraine [on April 25], Ukrainians who present at land U.S. ports of entry without a valid visa or without pre-authorization to travel to the United States through Uniting for Ukraine will be denied entry and referred to apply through this program,” DHS said.

About 15,000 Ukrainian refugees have come to the U.S. since the Russian invasion began, mostly through Mexico.

Speaking to reporters on April 21, President Biden said the new program “will complement the existing legal pathways available to Ukrainians, including immigrant visas and refugee processing” and “provide an expedient channel” for Ukrainians with a U.S. sponsor to come into the country.

“This program will be fast; it will be streamlined and will ensure the United States honors its commitment to the people of Ukraine,” President Biden said.

Most recently, the U.S. has used humanitarian parole to help bring thousands of Afghans to the country following the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan in August 2021. But amid processing backlogs, advocates have urged Congress to pass a law that would grant them permanent residency.

“While the U.S. government is saying this is going to be streamlined, they’re going to expedite this, they’ve not created any new pathway for Ukrainian refugees to come to the United States,”Kimberly Halkett said. “There are already some eyebrows being raised [as to] whether it’s as good as the United States government is selling it to be.”

Leon Fresco, an immigration attorney and former U.S. Justice Department official under President Barack Obama, said the new program “in theory” will make it easier for Ukrainians to get to the U.S., but many challenges remain.

“You still have to put in the applications, you still have to adjudicate the applications – we have no idea how long that’s going to take … and then when they’re approved, you still need to then go to an embassy somewhere around the world, wherever you happen to be, and ask for the actual card to enter the United States,” he said.

“Those appointments are also backlogged by years, and so it will be a big question, implementation-wise, whether this will make it easier or not,” he said, adding that he believes it is unlikely the U.S. will see “anywhere near” 100,000 Ukrainians coming to the country.

“The problem is when people can go directly to the border and make an application, they are going to be a lot less likely to wait weeks and months and months,” Fresco said. “If the Biden administration really wants people not to go to the border, they’re going to need to turn around these applications very quickly.”

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