The White House announced plans Thursday to welcome 100,000 Ukrainians fleeing Russia’s war on their country, the latest in a series of moves to make the U.S. immigration system a safety valve for migrants from global trouble spots.
Senior American officials said most Ukrainians likely want to remain near their home country but the U.S. can help relieve pressure on European nations taking in the largest number of displaced people since World War II.
Ukrainian migrants would join more than 75,000 Afghans airlifted to the U.S. last year, as well as tens of thousands of Venezuelans and Haitians who have been granted special protection and hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants streaming across the southern border attempting to claim asylum.
Refugee advocates say the moves reverse four years of retrenchment under President Trump, who in 2019 declared the U.S. “full.”
“Welcoming 100,000 Ukrainians would be an important recognition that the United States must play both a supporting and leading role in providing refuge,” said Krish O’Mara Vignarajah, president of Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service.
Whether the nation’s creaky immigration system can handle the strain remains to be seen.
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“It is unclear whether the Ukrainians will come as refugees on humanitarian parole or on temporary visas. All these systems are backlogged, so it will be a huge operational challenge to process those cases quickly,” said Stephen Yale-Loehr, a leading immigration law expert at Cornell Law School.
President Biden was in Europe for meetings on the crisis in Ukraine, and the White House gave few details about the plan. Officials said Ukrainians with family in the U.S. will be a priority, as will journalists, dissidents and LBGTQ people.
In the wake of the chaotic Afghanistan airlift, which brought tens of thousands of thinly vetted evacuees to the U.S., some critics urged the Biden administration to pump the brakes.
“The [administration] must stop its knee-jerk policy of importing thousands of refugees into the U.S. first and asking questions later,” Rep. Thomas P. Tiffany, Wisconsin Republican, said in a post on Twitter. “Displaced Ukrainians should be resettled in nearby countries so they can more easily return home when the situation stabilizes.”
Russia’s war against Ukraine has uprooted more than 10 million people and sent 3.6 million Ukrainians fleeing to other nations, the United Nations said. Most have gone to Poland.
It’s not clear how long the U.S. envisions it would take to welcome the 100,000 Ukrainians. Just 20,000 Ukrainians were accepted and resettled as refugees over the past decade.
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There may not even be 100,000 Ukrainians looking to come to America. Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas told reporters last week that he expected most Ukrainians to stay in Europe.
Mr. Mayorkas and the Biden administration have been trying to rebuild the U.S. refugee system, which analysts said calcified as the Trump administration turned its attention to the border and a backlog of hundreds of thousands of asylum cases.
Mr. Trump ratcheted down the annual refugee admission cap from 85,000 in fiscal 2016, the final Obama year, to 18,000 in 2020.
Mr. Biden has gone the other way. In 2021, he set a cap of 62,500 refugees, though the country resettled fewer than 6,500. For 2022, Mr. Biden set a target cap of 125,000 refugees. Through the first five months of the fiscal year, fewer than 6,500 had been resettled.
Refugee agencies say it takes time to rebuild after the drop in capacity. They say they are working to accommodate the asylum-seeking migrants from the U.S.-Mexico border and the Afghan evacuees, who didn’t arrive as refugees but were conferred many benefits of the refugee system.
The Ukrainian program was revealed about the same time Mr. Mayorkas was announcing new rules dealing with asylum-seekers at the border. Under the new policy, those cases will be heard by more asylum officers at U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services rather than by immigration judges.
The Department of Homeland Security billed the move as a way to speed decisions and add more “fairness” to the process. Analysts said in practice it will mean more asylum approvals because asylum officers are usually more sympathetic to cases than immigration judges.
Over the past year or so, Mr. Mayorkas has issued or updated declarations of temporary protected status for migrants in the U.S. from Afghanistan, Ukraine, Myanmar, Venezuela, Haiti and elsewhere. Venezuela alone accounts for more than 300,000 potential TPS beneficiaries, the government estimates.
The TPS program grants a stay of deportation and tentative legal status, including work permits, to migrants whose home countries are deemed too dangerous for them to return.
Immigrant rights groups have cheered the moves but have a list of other countries they want the Biden administration to protect.
“The Biden administration must rebuild the U.S. refugee resettlement program not only for Ukrainians but also for those who have fled similar conflicts that have garnered less media attention or been largely forgotten in the U.S. — even though the conflicts continue and refugees remain in desperate conditions in neighboring countries for years and sometimes for decades,” said Jenny Yang, senior vice president of advocacy and policy for World Relief.
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