More than 3 million refugees have fled war-torn Ukraine to neighboring countries in a span of weeks, prompting calls for more nations — and specifically the US — to take in refugees. Polish President Andrzej Duda personally asked Vice President Kamala Harris last week to speed up and simplify the procedures allowing Ukrainians with family in the US to come to the country.
For Biden, welcoming Ukrainian refugees into the United States would also help advance the notion of Western unity in the face of Russian aggression, according to one official. The President has told his team that the United States should be prepared to do its part, even as the details of how to do that have not yet been finalized.
Even as they work to identify ways to help Ukrainians, White House officials monitoring the refugee situation said they believe the crisis is still in its early stages, with the potential to dramatically expand in the coming weeks or months. There are fears among some that Poland, along with poorer nations in the region, won’t be able to accommodate a steady flow of migrants that could persist for months, according to officials.
That has added urgency to the discussions about US assistance, as Biden’s aides work to develop options that might alleviate the burden on Ukraine’s neighbors.
Still, it’s unlikely that there will be an onslaught of Ukrainian refugees to the US in the same way that unfolded with Afghans last year, given that some are expected to stay in Europe because of ties there. But the need to assist countries in the region accepting those refugees is growing.
During meetings in Warsaw, Duda warned Harris that his country’s resources were being badly strained by the influx of refugees, even as his country welcomes them with open arms. Harris received a similar message the following day in Romania, where thousands of refugees have fled.
Harris made it clear in the meetings that the US was poised to offer more financial assistance to those countries to contend with the new refugee flows. But White House officials also believe there will be heightened international and congressional pressure to welcome more refugees in the United States, given it is far wealthier than the Eastern European nations confronting the influx.
‘There’s no way for them to get here’
There are currently limited options for those who are interested in reuniting with family in the US, sparking desperate pleas from Ukrainian Americans willing to take their relatives in.
The US refugee resettlement process, for example, can take years. Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman conceded that the process is long and arduous in an interview with CNN on Tuesday, adding: “We have always welcomed refugees, even if sometimes it takes a while to get here.” Sherman said the administration is assessing paths forward daily.
Since October, at least 690 Ukrainian refugees have been admitted to the United States, according to State Department data. Ukrainian refugees have previously benefited from the Lautenberg Amendment, enacted in 1989 to protect those fleeing religious persecution from the former Soviet Union. That option remains open but unlikely to meet the new, urgent demand.
There are ways to shorten the process that are under discussion, like a priority designation that bypasses a referral from the United Nations refugee agency to provide direct access to the US refugee admissions program. There is also a form of parole that allows people fleeing urgent humanitarian crises entry to the United States. Both of those methods have been used before in moments of conflict, including after the evacuation from Afghanistan.
Refugee advocates are, in the interim, preparing for the arrival of Ukrainians.
“We know they have to be brought here,” said Mark Hetfield, president of HIAS, a refugee resettlement organization, adding that these cases might be easier to resettle given that there are relatives in the US who can step in to help.
But Hetfield warned that Ukrainians should come to the US with legal status or be provided a pathway to that status, to avoid a situation where they’re in legal limbo, as has happened with Afghans.
People in the United States with Ukrainian relatives have exhausted numerous options to bring their families to the country but in some cases have come up short, given strict visa rules.
Ashley Testa and her husband, Misha Gryb, spent five days in Jacksonville, Florida, trying to help their relatives in Ukraine navigate to the Polish border for safety. Now the hurdle they face is getting those family members to the US.
“There’s no way for them to get here,” Testa said. “The only avenue is hoping that the US government will start accepting Ukrainian refugees.”
This week, a Ukrainian American family joined Democratic Rep. Tom Suozzi of New York in urging the administration to make an exception for Ukrainians who are trying to come to the US on tourist visas to connect with family.
But to obtain tourist visas, Ukrainians must apply, get appointments at US consulates and prove that they’re coming to the US for a short period — a requirement set in law. That’s kept some Ukrainians from being able to travel to the US, given the uncertain circumstances in their country, including the relatives of the family who joined Suozzi on Monday.
While it’s unclear what forms of help the administration will ultimately provide for people seeking entry to the United States, officials are also tracking a potential uptick of Ukrainians and Russians who may journey to the US, including at the southwest border, a Department of Homeland Security official told CNN.
Ukrainian and Russian families have already started to line up at a checkpoint along the California-Mexico border, according to advocates and attorneys on the ground. One family turned away last week was eventually let in.
The Biden administration has also taken some steps to address Ukrainians in the US and those potentially wanting to immigrate to the US, including extending a form of humanitarian relief for Ukrainians already in the United States and expediting visa forms.
The relief, known as Temporary Protected Status, applies to people who would face extreme hardship if forced to return to homelands devastated by armed conflict or natural disasters. Therefore, the protections are limited to people already in the US.
CNN reported earlier this month that about 75,100 people are estimated to be eligible to file applications for TPS under the designation of Ukraine.