When Russia invaded her homeland in February, Brooklyn, New York-based Ukrainian immigrant Yuliya Z. and her adult daughter formed New York Communities for Ukrainian Refugees and quickly began organizing. Together, the pair, who have been living in the United States since 2013, began amassing resources for Ukrainians arriving in the tri-state area: lists of places to go for pro-bono legal assistance and free food, clothing, translation, medical care, counseling and English classes.
But while Yuliya says it helped her to do something concrete, she was constantly worried about her 74-year-old mother, who was still in Odessa. Then, in late April, the Biden administration announced the Uniting for Ukraine (U4U) program, an expedited process to bring Ukrainians to the U.S., and for the first time in months, Yuliya saw a way to get her mother to safety.
“It was amazing,” Yuliya told Truthout. “I submitted all the documentation to the office of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) and applied to sponsor her. It took just three days to get approved.” Her mother arrived in Brooklyn in mid-July.
Yuliya’s elation is audible. At the same time, she understands that the road ahead will not be easy. “I’m a single parent. I paid for my mother to travel to the U.S. and will, of course, provide for her, but we live in a small apartment. There’s no privacy,” she explains. “My mother was always a happy person, but she is now depressed — not destroyed — but her mental health needs attention. She could not sleep for months due to Russian missile strikes.”
Despite these challenges, Yuliya calls Uniting for Ukraine a godsend and hopes that the program will provide a way for tens of thousands of Ukrainians to enter the U.S. as recipients of “humanitarian parole.”
Under the streamlined program, any residents who were living in Ukraine on February 11 can enter the U.S. once they have a sponsor — someone like Yuliya who agrees to provide them with financial and other support during their time in the United States. Sponsors can be relatives or strangers who have the financial wherewithal and desire to help. Moreover, U.S. citizens, permanent residents, or folks with “temporary protected status,” a designation that allows newcomers to live and work anywhere in the 50 states for up to 18 months, can serve as sponsors.
Temporary protected status (TPS) is typically given to people fleeing war or environmental calamity; in this case, Ukrainians — including tourists, students and Ukrainians who had come to the US to do business and were here at the start of the conflict — have been deemed eligible for TPS protections.
Uniting for Ukraine allows refugees to live in the U.S. for up to two years — six months longer than the time afforded under temporary protected status. During their stay, they are permitted to apply for work authorization, and benefits including food stamps, Supplemental Security Income and Medicaid.
According to Monna Kashfi, vice president of content and communications at Welcome.US, a nonpartisan, privately funded nonprofit that has brought 250 community-based organizations and businesses together to help newly arrived immigrants get their bearing, the U4U program is moving quickly. As of July 8, 74,000 U4U applications had been filed and 47,600 Ukrainians had been approved for travel to the United States. Already, 21,000 have received humanitarian parole, with most settling in New York, Illinois, California, Florida and Washington state.
But despite the pace of the program’s implementation, the agencies that typically assist refugees and asylum seekers are scrambling to meet the demand. “We were still catching our breath and reactivating our resettlement sites when the Afghan crisis began,” says Kelly Agnew-Barajas, director of refugee resettlement at Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of New York. “Afghans coming into the U.S. still do not have protections to enable them to stay in the U.S. long-term, and now we’re facing an influx of an additional 100,000 people from Ukraine.”
Agnew-Barajas is referring to cuts enacted by the Trump administration. These cuts — 472 administrative changes imposed between 2016 and 2020 — resulted in the dismantling of more than 100 established refugee resettlement projects throughout the country. This diminished the groups’ capacity to assist new arrivals. And even though refugee groups began rebuilding their infrastructure after Biden took office in January 2021, enormous challenges continue to stymie the agencies’ capacity to help. For one, unlike more traditional refugee admissions programs that are overseen by the Department of State, U4U does not provide recipients with a direct pathway to either citizenship or a green card.
At the same time, Naomi Steinberg, vice president for policy and advocacy at HIAS (previously the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, but now known only by the acronym), told Truthout that U4U proves “that when the government wants to move quickly, it can. This shows that when there is the political will, there can be a political way.”
That said, she says that the speed with which the U4U program took off has been somewhat unsettling to other immigrant populations, including Afghans, who have been making their way through other, more-typical and slow-moving, refugee channels. “The obvious differences in how Ukrainians are being treated are not lost on Afghans or other refugee populations,” she says. “HIAS wants to see a response that reflects global need and that addresses the diverse and desperate needs of refugees throughout the world.”
In addition, Steinberg says, while Ukrainians are now arriving in the U.S. and are being united with sponsors, significant difficulties are becoming more and more blatant. “Employment authorization documents are taking way longer than we would have hoped under U4U,” she says. “The wait is running between four-and-a-half and 10 months, which leaves people in a bind. Sponsors as well as refugees are stuck. When people go through traditional refugee resettlement channels, employment documents are provided almost immediately.”
Jodi Ziesemer, director of the New York Legal Assistance Group, a free legal services program for low-income residents of the five boroughs, told Truthout that prior to the U4U launch, if Ukrainians appeared at the U.S.-Mexico border, they were usually allowed in, given humanitarian parole, and allotted a fixed amount of time — from a few days to close to a year — to stay in the country and pursue asylum.
Now, under U4U, Ukrainians can enter for only two years; although they can complete all required paperwork online, there is not a direct route to citizenship. In addition, Ziesemer says, “the sponsor provides a nonbinding agreement of financial support for the person or family they wish to bring in, but there is no inquiry into where the refugee will be housed and no enforcement if the sponsor does not actually support the people who are arriving.”
Then there’s the issue of potential exploitation. Already, Ziesemer says, advocates are hearing stories of sexual trafficking and forced work. “There can be a mismatch of expectations,” she says. Sponsors, many of them recent arrivals to the U.S. who are living in or near poverty themselves, are often well-meaning but get frustrated because they assume “the U.S. government will provide social service support to the person coming in.”
When this help is not forthcoming, Ziesemer adds, tempers can flare, setting the stage for potential conflicts or abuse. “The refugee ends up feeling trapped,” and has few options beyond going to a domestic violence or homeless shelter if their living situation becomes untenable.
These are not Ziesemer’s only concerns. Once refugees arrive, she explains, there is no follow-up to make sure they’re doing okay. “Once someone lands in the U.S., it’s on them to explore legal protections, apply for work authorization, enroll children in school, and apply for benefits they’re eligible for. The Ukrainians coming into the U.S. have huge needs, but the U4U program still does not know if it is dealing with enduring needs or short-term needs and the war is being treated as a temporary crisis,” she says.
What’s more, Ziesemer adds, the government is using U4U to shore up its reputation as a safe haven for all. “While it does cut through a lot of red tape,” she continues, it is of limited value without a robust social safety net.
Furthermore, Ziesemer echoes Agnew-Barajas’s concerns, noting that this crisis is coming on the heels of the still-unfolding Afghan refugee crisis. “We’re still midstream in helping Afghan refugees get paroled into the U.S.,” Ziesemer says. “There is so much desperation among Afghans. The humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan is continuing.” In addition to ongoing fighting, there is widespread famine, and a recent earthquake added another layer of misery. “But Congress has to date not passed an Afghan Adjustment Act to help Afghan arrivals become lawful, permanent residents once their humanitarian parole ends. This has made the pivot to Ukraine extremely difficult,” she told Truthout.
Add in the influx of recent immigrants from Argentina, Bolivia, Haiti, Syria and Venezuela — people who have not been as widely or enthusiastically welcomed as Ukrainians — and it is obvious why staff at refugee agencies feel completely overwhelmed.
Jessica Bolter, associate policy analyst of U.S. immigration policy at the Migration Policy Institute, agrees that U4U is imperfect. Nonetheless, she calls it “an innovative way to make use of community support for Ukrainians.” At the same time, she stresses that the program gives people only a temporary reprieve. “Yes,” she says, “it’s possible that U4U will be renewed, but renewal is not guaranteed. A person who has not secured a green card or applied for asylum can be left without status if U4U expires.”
In the past, she continues, whenever large groups of migrants or refugees were admitted to the country, Congress followed up by passing legislation, called adjustment acts, to allow them to file for permanent protections. “Adjustment acts were common throughout the 20th century,” Bolter says. “Since it is becoming clearer and clearer that the war in Ukraine will not be resolved quickly — and that the country will need years to rebuild once it ends — it seems obvious that many Ukrainians will have an interest in staying in the U.S. for more than the two years U4U gives them.”
For their part, advocates are pushing Congress to pass adjustment acts to protect both Afghan and Ukrainian refugees far into the future. Meanwhile, immigration activists continue working on the ground to help the newly arrived from both countries — and elsewhere — adjust to the nuances of U.S. domestic life.
Even before completing the U4U application to bring her mother into the United States, Yuliya Z. understood the possible pitfalls of bringing her to a new place. Nonetheless, she is grateful to her adopted country for allowing the family to reunite. “My mom was alone and scared in Odessa, but here we can take care of her,” she says. “I am thankful for everything.”