More than 4 million people have fled Ukraine since Russia’s invasion began late February. With bordering countries Poland, Romania and Hungary overwhelmed with Ukrainians looking for safety, President Joe Biden announced on March 24 that the U.S. would also welcome Ukrainians.
While many refugees would prefer to stay closer to home in Europe, Biden said, the U.S. “will welcome 100,000 Ukrainians to the United States with a focus on reuniting families.”
The 100,000 people will be let in “through the full range of legal pathways,” the White House said, and the U.S. is “working to expand and develop new programs” with a focus on Ukrainians who already have family in the United States.
But a lot about the plan remains uncertain. The White House did not provide specifics on a timeline for admissions, nor did it respond to PolitiFact’s request for additional information about the nature of the admissions.
One thing is clear: Experts say it will take more time to admit 100,000 Ukrainians than many might hope or expect.
Refugee resettlement had stalled before Russia’s war
While not all Ukrainians will be admitted under a refugee status, it’s worth noting that in recent years, the U.S. has admitted far fewer refugees than federal policy has allowed.
By the time he left office, Trump had set the lowest refugee admissions cap in the program’s history.
Biden campaigned for the White House promising the opposite — to increase refugee admissions. Just a few months into his administration, Biden announced an aspirational goal and raised the low fiscal year 2021 cap set by Trump from 15,000 to 62,500 refugees.
At the same time, Biden acknowledged a “sad truth” — in reality, the U.S. would not be able to admit that many refugees.
He was right; in fiscal 2021, the U.S. admitted 11,411 refugees, according to State Department data. (The federal fiscal year starts Oct. 1 and ends Sept. 30.)
Arriving in the U.S. as a refugee is not as straightforward as some might think, even if that person comes from a war-torn country.
Under federal law, to apply for admission as a refugee, people must be outside the U.S. and must demonstrate to a U.S. immigration official overseas that they were persecuted or fear persecution in their home country due to race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group. People admitted into the U.S. as refugees arrive here legally and must have passed background checks and other security screenings.
For fiscal year 2022, Biden set a goal of admitting up to 125,000 refugees. That’s unlikely to happen at the current pace. So far, six months into the fiscal year, just 8,758 refugees have been admitted.
The U.S. has admitted 704 Ukrainian refugees; the majority of them — 427 — arrived in February. Only 12 Ukrainian refugees were admitted in March.
Refugee admissions hampered by previous low caps
Trump’s dramatic cuts limited the country’s ability to resettle refugees.
The State Department works with the United Nations to identify refugees and arrange for their travel. Once refugees are in the U.S., resettlement agencies help them start new lives in their new communities. Those agencies rely on grants from the federal government, and the size of those grants is based on the expected number of refugees, said Theresa Cardinal Brown, managing director of immigration and cross-border policy for the Bipartisan Policy Center.
In recent years, resettlement agencies lost substantial funding and had to “drastically cut back their size,” Brown said.
Krish O’Mara Vignarajah is the president and CEO of Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service. She said her organization closed 17 offices nationwide during the Trump administration.
Vignarajah said that since Biden increased the refugee ceiling, more funding has become available for resettlement agencies. Her organization has added or reopened about a dozen offices.
The COVID-19 pandemic has complicated resettlement efforts, too.
U.S. government employees often interview refugees face-to-face, and the pandemic has made travel difficult for those employees, said Julia Gelatt, a senior policy analyst at the Migration Policy Institute.
What does all this mean for Ukrainians?
Experts said it will be challenging and unlikely for the U.S. to admit 100,000 Ukrainians quickly.
Some Ukrainians will come in under the refugee program, the White House said. But it typically takes two years or longer for someone to come in as a refugee once they start that process.
“The only way for this system to provide immediate relief is if the administration finds ways to accelerate the timeline,” Vignarajah said. If that cannot be done, she said the U.S. could use a “nimbler option,” known as humanitarian parole.
Under humanitarian parole, people who may otherwise be ineligible for admission into the United States are allowed in for a temporary period. Parolees can apply for a work permit.
More than 70,000 Afghan evacuees arrived under humanitarian parole in fiscal year 2021. They were among more than 82,000 people the U.S. flew out of Afghanistan as U.S. forces withdrew from the country. (The 82,000 also included U.S. citizens and lawful permanent residents, refugees, and people with “special immigrant visas” who helped the U.S. in Afghanistan.)
While the same option could be used to admit Ukrainians, Gelatt said humanitarian parole would put those people “into an uncertain legal status without any direct path to permanent residence in the United States.”
Brown of the Bipartisan Policy Center said the Biden administration might also consider prioritizing Ukrainians who qualify for employment visas.
“Within the country generally, we have the capacity — we have the room, we have the people who want to help,” Brown said. “One of the advantages is that there’s a lot of support for the Ukrainian refugees.”
In addition, the U.S. may, on a case-by-case basis, use other ways to bring in Ukrainians, such as expediting requests for parole or applications for work permits, waiving fees and being flexible about missed interviews and replacing lost or damaged immigration documents.
Criticism of the U.S. response to the Ukrainian crisis
Some elected officials and immigrant advocates have said that while it’s important for the United States to grant immigration protections to Ukrainians, the same should be done for people from other countries, without exceptions or double standards.
“We really need to make sure that when we talk about accepting refugees that we are meaning it for everybody no matter where you come from,” Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., told MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow. Ocasio-Cortez said the way the U.S. has treated Haitians and others seeking refuge at the southern border “is not right.”
“How the world treats Ukraine, and Ukrainian refugees, should be how we are treating all refugees in the United States,” Rep. Ocasio-Cortez says. pic.twitter.com/bxzbRIYDju
— MSNBC (@MSNBC) March 2, 2022
On the day Biden announced the U.S. would welcome 100,000 Ukrainians, Rep. Andy Levin, D-Mich., tweeted: “The U.S. can’t claim to be a global safe haven for the oppressed & persecuted if we turn away refugees seeking safety because of where they’re from. Deporting Haitian refugees—and other Black + Brown immigrants—and upholding Title 42 is an appalling policy that @POTUS must stop.”
Title 42 is a reference to a public health law that allows border officials to rapidly expel immigrants without giving them a chance to apply for asylum. (Throughout the pandemic, some people have been exempt from this rule, including unaccompanied children.)
Thousands of Haitians who arrived at the southern border in fiscal year 2021 were among those expelled by immigration authorities citing the public health order; the Biden administration faced backlash in September 2021 after photos showed Border Patrol agents on horseback pursuing and turning away Haitians.
In March, CBS News reported that the Department of Homeland Security advised U.S. border officials to consider exempting Ukrainians arriving at the southern border from expulsion.
“It certainly raises an eyebrow,” Vignarajah said, “when you look at our southern border and you look at thousands of Haitians violently expelled and the contrast of a warm welcome that other nationalities have received.”
Eduardo Silva, a DHS spokesperson, told PolitiFact that exceptions at the border are made on a case-by-case basis and to “particularly vulnerable individuals of all nationalities for humanitarian reasons.”
DHS has said that all expulsions under the public health order will end May 23.