A new program was set to take effect Monday to streamline applications for Ukrainians into the United States in order to minimize the number of refugees seeking asylum through U.S. borders with Mexico.
The stated goal of the "Uniting for Ukraine" program is to make it easier for refugees fleeing Russia’s war on Ukraine to come to the United States from Europe while trying to shut down an informal route through northern Mexico that has emerged in recent weeks.
Those who show up at the U.S.-Mexico border seeking asylum will no longer routinely be granted entry, as thousands of refugees have been since the invasion ordered by Russian President Vladimir Putin began more than two months ago.
Some refugees were still being processed at the San Ysidro Port of Entry south of San Diego hours after the new policy took effect.
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Phil Metzger, the lead pastor at Calvary San Diego who has been working daily to help Ukrainian asylum seekers at the U.S.-Mexico border, said the U.S. government did not want to leave the final Ukrainians at the border stranded, so about 30 Ukrainians were processed overnight into Monday.
They were reportedly to be the last group allowed to cross without using the new program.
"I’m very glad about the new system that’s starting,” Metzger said. "I think there’s going to be a lot of hiccups, I think there’s going to be confusion. I think some people are going to get lost in the system between Europe and Mexico in this little bit of time. ... But the reality is, for those who have not left Europe yet, this is going to be a much better system."
To qualify for admission to the U.S. under the new program, officially known as "Uniting for Ukraine," people must have been in Ukraine as of Feb. 11; have a sponsor, which could be family or an organization; meet vaccination and other public health requirements; and pass background checks.
Art Oberemok, who is volunteering in San Diego to help Ukrainian refugees who cross into the U.S. from Mexico, said he was supposed to have relatives come through Mexico but their passports weren't approved in time before the new policy was announced.
“They’re still in Europe so they can come through this new system, which is good. So technically they did get kind of lucky in a way because a lot of people got the tickets, got here and then had to turn back," Oberemok said. "And, a lot of them are lost, they have no idea what to do. They may not have the money to go back but they do have this sponsorship system so, hopefully, they’ll get help to get into the U.S.”
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Typically, people would start applications in their home country, but that's no longer possible because the U.S. pulled its diplomats from Ukraine. The State Department will expand resettlement operations in Eastern Europe under the new program to compensate.
After President Joe Biden announced the plan on Thursday, volunteers, many from American churches, were shuttling Ukrainians from a shelter in Tijuana, Mexico, to the closest border crossing.
“It is going to be good for people. I’m happy,” said San Diego resident Ludmilo Jaaniste, who was at the shelter to get her niece and her niece’s 12-year-old daughter after they fled Kyiv. “They (the U.S.) were taking people, so why not make it easier.”
The U.S. says it will admit up to 100,000 refugees from Ukraine and about 15,000 have come since the Feb. 24 invasion, mostly through Mexico. Starting Monday, that will no longer be an option except in extreme circumstances, officials said.
It's an effort by the U.S. to uphold its commitment to help Eastern European nations contend with the 5 million refugees who have fled Ukraine while trying to reduce the number of migrants seeking to cross the U.S.-Mexico border.
Complicating matters, however, the U.S. plans next month to lift a public health order, known as Title 42, that enables authorities to quickly turn away migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border without giving them a chance to claim asylum. The Biden administration has been exempting Ukrainian refugees but will do so no longer.
“We are proud to deliver on President Biden’s commitment to welcome 100,000 Ukrainians and others fleeing Russian aggression to the United States,” Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro N. Mayorkas said in a statement announcing the effort. “The Ukrainian people continue to suffer immense tragedy and loss as a result of Putin’s unprovoked and unjustified attack on their country.”
U.S. officials say a majority of the Ukrainian refugees want to stay in Eastern Europe because many hope eventually to return home.
Advocates have said the U.S. should take more than 100,000 refugees and further expedite the process.
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Public support doesn't seem to be an issue. An Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research poll shows 65% of Americans favor accepting Ukrainian refugees into the U.S., while 15% oppose it. An additional 19% say they neither favor nor oppose.
Most of those admitted will receive two years of residence and authorization to work in the United States under what’s known as humanitarian parole. Those coming to the U.S. through the formal refugee process, including members of religious minority groups, will receive permanent legal residency.
A downside of the new effort is that humanitarian parole generally does not include temporary housing support and other benefits provided through the traditional refugee program, which is only slowly recovering from Trump-era cutbacks, said Krish O’Mara Vignarajah, president of Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service.
Nevertheless, Vignarajah and other refugee advocates welcomed the announcement. “Families desperately seeking to bring their loved ones directly to safety in the U.S. have a glimmer of hope, where there once was exceedingly little,” she said.
Refugees will encounter a streamlined process in Europe, but they won’t be able to complete it in Mexico, senior administration officials told reporters, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss the program before the public announcement.
Instead, Ukrainians who show up at the border will generally be turned away and told to apply for entry under the new program. That is the situation for most migrants under the public health order in place since the early in the pandemic in March 2020.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said the use of Title 42, which has been used to turn away more than 1.7 million people, is set to end May 23 — though a federal judge said Monday he intends to temporarily block the Biden administration from lifting the border restriction.
The CDC is under pressure to keep it in place not to control COVID-19, as it was supposedly intended, but to help ease an increase in migrants seeking to cross the border.
Critics of the use of Title 42 at the border have pointed out that it denies people their right under U.S law and international treaty to make claims for asylum and forces migrants to return to dangerous conditions in Northern Mexico and elsewhere.
Associated Press writer Elliot Spagat in Tijuana, Mexico, contributed to this report.