The Biden administration says it's making 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, but advocates are worried the new plan will make things more complicated.
Under a program announced Thursday, the U.S. will streamline refugee applications for Ukrainians and others fleeing the fighting, but will no longer routinely grant entry to those who show up at the U.S.-Mexico border seeking asylum.
Volunteers, many from American churches, were shuttling Ukrainians from a shelter in Tijuana, Mexico, to the closest border crossing as news spread of plans to discourage a means of entering the U.S. taken by thousands of refugees since the invasion ordered by Russian President Vladimir Putin began almost two months ago.
“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.”
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The U.S. says it expects to 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 refugeeswho 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.
Public support doesn't seem to be an issue. An Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research pollshows 65% of Americans favor accepting Ukrainian refugees into the U.S., while 15% oppose. An additional 19% say they neither favor nor oppose.
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.
One volunteer helping refugees transition from Tijuana to San Diego said the vaccination requirement isn't consistent with how the country treats other foreigners.
"We have flights coming to the country every day with lots of foreigners. There's no requirement for vaccinations, but suddenly we're taking a population that is fleeing war and we're requiring vaccination for them to enter the country, so there are some issues that I think need to be addressed," Nadine Toppozada with Catholic Charities said.
She also believes some refugees will be at a disadvantage because of the sponsorship requirement.
"With the whole sponsorship model, we're basically telling people, 'Unless someone guarantees they can support you on this side of the border, I'm sorry, we can't host you.' So, I'm not sure this is really opening our arms to welcoming Ukrainians as much as selecting the Ukrainians we choose to provide support to," Toppozada
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.
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. The agency 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.