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Ukrainians in US anxious about protections as war rages on

On the anniversary of a program that brought them to America, those who left the war-torn country worry what happens next

Supporters of Ukraine  attend a Feb. 23 rally at the Lincoln Memorial to mark the one year anniversary of the Russian invasion.
Supporters of Ukraine attend a Feb. 23 rally at the Lincoln Memorial to mark the one year anniversary of the Russian invasion. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Borys Gudziak, archbishop of Philadelphia for the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, said Ukrainian members of his congregation who fled to the U.S. after Russia’s invasion have started to worry about their fate once their temporary immigration protections expire.

“There are many that are considering returning as soon as possible. There are others who don’t know what to do,” said Gudziak, the son of Ukrainian immigrants who has made six trips to Ukraine since the invasion.

“And there are some who are saying, ‘we have nothing to return to. Our city has been destroyed. My place of work has been destroyed.’”

Thousands of Ukrainians are living and working in the U.S. under an immigration program known as Uniting for Ukraine, which the Biden administration rolled out in the months after Russian forces invaded the Eastern European nation last year and displaced millions.

But as the program reaches its one-year mark and the war in Ukraine rages on, immigrant advocates and refugee groups warn that the two-year period of stay granted to Ukrainians who fled home last year may ultimately fall short. Some Ukrainians have become anxious that they may see their U.S. protections end before they are prepared to return.

Advocates have held up the U4U program, announced on April 21, 2022, as an innovative and effective program that may mark a turning point in the way the U.S. responds to humanitarian crises. Many advocates said they expect to see the Biden administration take action to prevent these Ukrainians from having to leave the U.S.

But the Department of Homeland Security has yet to publicly announce what that process will look like.

“We know that two years may seem like a long time, but we are a year in, and war’s still waging in Ukraine,” Lee Williams, chief programs officer at the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, said. “So what happens to the folks that are here?”

Temporary stay

The U4U program allows Ukrainians with willing U.S. sponsors to fly directly to the U.S. and stay and work for up to two years under what’s known as humanitarian parole.

According to the Department of Homeland Security, as of April 18, the department had received approximately 238,000 requests from individuals in the U.S. who wanted to sponsor a Ukrainian citizen as part of the program, and around 125,000 have entered the U.S. through U4U. (More than 179,000 additional Ukrainians have also been permitted to enter the country outside of U4U, such as by requesting to enter via the U.S.-Mexico border or through other visas, according to DHS.)

Congress passed legislation last year that gave Ukrainian parolees access to certain federal refugee benefits. But unlike refugee status, parole does not provide a path to permanent residency. That leaves Ukrainians who may ultimately wish to remain in the U.S. with limited options.

Some Ukrainians on parole may be able to be granted asylum to stay in the U.S., but fear of generalized violence does not typically qualify someone for that form of protection.

This, combined with the impending end to individuals’ two-year parole periods, has created uncertainty in the community, nonprofit leaders said.

Naomi Steinberg, vice president for U.S. policy and advocacy at HIAS, a Jewish refugee nonprofit, said this uncertainty has left Ukrainians in a “state of limbo.”

“It’s really sort of a purgatory, if you will, and that makes it very hard to know how to live one’s life when it’s unclear what the next steps can look like,” Steinberg said.

The uncertainty has also created a sense of anxiety in the community, said Heath Rosenberger, director of Migration and Refugee Services for Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Cleveland.

“We’ve really noticed that people have come to the realization that there might not be a home to go back to, or that the war will not be ending anytime soon,” Rosenberger said.

Re-parole

In recent months, advocates have begun to push the Biden administration to announce a process for Ukrainians to apply for parole again. Those who entered the U.S. over the U.S.-Mexico border shortly after Russia’s invasion — whose parole periods were recently automatically extended to align with U4U participants — could see their benefits expire as soon as March.

Lawyers and advocates said this process, unlike the extension given to Ukrainians who crossed the border before U4U was established, would likely require beneficiaries to submit an application affirmatively.

Anya McMurray, president of Welcome.US, said continuing the parole program for Ukrainians beyond the two years “seems like such a no-brainer.”

“Re-parole seems like it makes a lot of sense for this population. It seems like a commonsense next step,” McMurray said.

A DHS spokesperson said the department “remains committed to supporting Ukrainians in the United States, and we continue to explore opportunities to provide avenues for humanitarian relief and protection for Ukrainians fleeing Russia’s unprovoked war.” The spokesperson did not elaborate on what the renewal process would look like.

New process?

DHS may need to create a new process for this population, as large-scale parole programs for refugees fleeing crises are relatively rare historically in the U.S.

According to the National Immigration Forum, hundreds of thousands of Cubans entered the country via parole in the early 1960s, and Congress passed legislation soon after allowing them to become permanent residents. The U.S. has also established parole programs for citizens of Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos in the 1970s following the fall of Saigon, and again in the early 2000s.

But the issue may become more common as the Biden administration increasingly relies on immigration parole programs.

Before Uniting for Ukraine, the administration used parole authorities to allow Afghan evacuees to live in the U.S. following the withdrawal of troops and Taliban takeover.

Parole has also provided the legal basis for the administration’s program to allow certain migrants from Cuba, Haiti, Nicaragua and Cuba with U.S. sponsors to stay temporarily in the country.

Jill Marie Bussey, director of public policy at the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, said she would like to see a “streamlined and efficient” program announced that makes clear to Ukrainians how they should apply for another two-year parole period once the current protections expire.

“We want to ensure that the continuation of their benefits and services remain intact,” Bussey said. “It’s important for people to have a sense of a path forward.”

Adjustment efforts

With Congress deadlocked on legislative efforts, any short-term parole extensions may prove insufficient in the long term, advocates said.

Parole beneficiaries from Afghanistan, for instance, may never be able to safely return to their home countries. This has fueled calls for Congress last session to pass legislation that would allow Afghan evacuees to apply for permanent residency.

As war and destruction continue in Ukraine, calls for a path to permanent residency for Ukrainians may also increase.

David Spicer, senior policy advisor for migration and refugee services at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said the organization has already had conversations about the potential future need for an adjustment act for Ukrainians.

“The longer the war is ongoing in Ukraine, and the less likely people are to return to Ukraine, the greater there’s going to be a need for that ability to adjust status and fully integrate within American communities,” Spicer said. “That’s always something that’s at the forefront of our thoughts.”

Lana, a Ukrainian living in the U.S. through the parole program whose last name was withheld for safety concerns, said in an interview that she does not see herself wanting to return to Ukraine.

She and her 22-year-old son fled the eastern Ukraine city of Kramatorsk and in August entered the U.S., where she said she knows her son is safe.

Since then, she said she has learned their former home has been destroyed. Though Lana and her son have over a year left on their parole, she said the eventual end to the program is always on her mind.

“Every day you are thinking about, what should you do?” she said. “As a mom, I don’t want to take my son back to Ukraine.”

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