US unveils new sponsorship programme for Ukrainian refugees

At same time, Biden administration discourages Ukrainians from trying to enter US through southern border with Mexico.

Ukrainians who fled to Mexico walk towards US border crossing
Ukrainians who fled to Mexico amid Russia's invasion of their country walk towards a US border crossing, in Tijuana, Mexico, April 2, 2022 [File: Jorge Duenes/Reuters]

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

In a statement on Thursday, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) said 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 US for two years.

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

The move came after Biden announced last month that the US 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 neighbouring 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 Thursday.

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

US 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 US protection.

“Following the launch of Uniting for Ukraine [on Monday], Ukrainians who present at land US 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 US since the Russian invasion began, mostly through Mexico, the Reuters news agency reported.

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

“This programme will be fast; it will be streamlined and will ensure the United States honours its commitment to the people of Ukraine,” the US president said.

Most recently, the US 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.

Al Jazeera’s Kimberly Halkett, reporting from Washington, said despite the way the Biden administration has characterised the new programme for Ukrainians, “it doesn’t appear to be as easy as it looks.”

“While the US 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,” Halkett reported. “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 US Justice Department official under President Barack Obama, said the new programme “in theory” will make it easier for Ukrainians to get to the US, 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 told Al Jazeera.

“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 US 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.”

Source: Al Jazeera