The Russian invasion of Ukraine has triggered the swiftest refugee displacement crisis in Europe since World War II, prompting more than 3 million people to flee the country during the conflict’s first three weeks.
The historic exodus of mostly women and children, coupled with harrowing images depicting the plight of both civilians in Ukraine and refugees in neighboring countries, has fueled global outcry.
In Europe, a range of liberal and conservative governments, including some currently implementing hard-line border policies toward migrants from the Middle East, have welcomed displaced Ukrainians with open arms.
Here in the U.S., the refugee crisis has raised a key question: Will America offer refuge to Ukrainians fleeing the largest conventional war in Europe in decades?
Will the U.S. receive Ukrainian refugees?
While President Biden said in early March that the U.S. should welcome them “with open arms,” the U.S. will likely not receive large numbers of Ukrainian refugees in the immediate future, immigration policy experts said.
As of March 18, most Ukrainian refugees have fled to neighboring countries — nearly 2 million of them to Poland. Hundreds of thousands have also escaped to Hungary, Moldova, Slovakia, Russia, Romania and other European countries, including Germany.
Many refugees may seek to remain in Europe, closer to Ukraine, in case there is a chance to return in the near future, said Theresa Cardinal Brown, a former Department of Homeland Security (DHS) immigration official. That calculus may change, she said, depending on how long the conflict lasts.
“We don’t know how many of the Ukrainians leaving now will want to get permanent resettlement,” Cardinal Brown, now an immigration and border policy analyst at the Bipartisan Policy Center, told CBS News. “A lot depends on the outcome of what’s happening there now.”
On March 4, the European Union authorized a Temporary Protective Directive for Ukrainians fleeing the Russian invasion, with all 27 member states agreeing to provide them short-term residency and other benefits, such as work authorization.
A State Department spokesperson said the U.S. is open to resettling Ukrainians who fled to third countries if “they cannot be protected in their current location,” but conceded it “is not a quick process.”
The U.S. refugee process, which involves interviews, security screenings, medical checks and other bureaucratic steps, takes years to complete. Under U.S. law, refugees must prove they have a well-founded fear of persecution because of their race, nationality, religion, politics or membership in a social group.
The U.S. refugee processing center in Kyiv — which typically processes U.S.-bound refugees from Eurasia — is continuing “limited operations” from Chisinau, Moldova, the State Department spokesperson said.
What other avenues do Ukrainians have to come to the U.S.?
Ukrainians fleeing Russia’s attack could come to the U.S. through other means, but they currently need a visa to enter legally and the pathways are limited.
The U.S. awards temporary visas to tourists, students, business travelers and other short-term visitors, and immigrant visas to those allowed to move to the U.S. permanently because they were sponsored by American family members or employers.
After suspending visa processing in Ukraine, Russia and Belarus, the State Department announced on March 1 that Ukrainians can apply for a temporary visa at any American consulate. It also designated the U.S. consulate in Frankfurt, Germany, as the processing hub for Ukrainian immigrant visa applications.
But visa seekers will face long wait times due to limited processing capacity at U.S. consulates and a growing backlog of applications that was exacerbated by the pandemic. They also may not be able to prove eligibility for temporary visas, since those require proof that applicants intend to return to their home country.
U.S. officials do have an authority known as parole that allows them to admit foreigners who don’t have visas on humanitarian grounds. Parole was used last year to resettle more than 70,000 Afghan evacuees after the Taliban reconquered Afghanistan.
Cardinal Brown, the former DHS official, said the U.S. could use parole to admit some displaced Ukrainians, such as family members of U.S. citizens and green card holders. Unlike refugee status, parole does not place recipients on a pathway to permanent U.S. residency, but it can allow them to work legally.
Expanding legal pathways for Ukrainians, Cardinal Brown argued, would discourage illegal immigration.
“If there are a lot of Ukrainians who do want to come to the United States and we haven’t provided the means to do so, we find more of them trying to come in unauthorized way,” she said, citing a recent uptick in Ukrainians processed by U.S. officials along the Mexican border.
In the first four months of fiscal year 2022, which started in October, 1,301 migrants from Ukraine entered U.S. custody along the southern border, compared to 676 total arrests in fiscal year 2021, DHS data show.
Has the U.S. previously resettled Ukrainian refugees?
Yes. Since fiscal year 2001, the U.S. has welcomed more than 50,000 refugees from Ukraine, which has been the largest European source of U.S. refugee admissions over the past two decades, government figures show.
In February, 427 Ukrainians entered the U.S. as refugees — a 390% jump from January.
The number of Ukrainians resettled by the U.S. increased sharply under President Trump, whose dramatic cuts to the refugee program primarily limited admissions of would-be refugees from countries in Africa and the Middle East plagued by war and ethnic conflict.
Ukrainian refugees have traditionally entered the U.S. through a special program created in 1989 to help members of religious minorities in former Soviet republics with immediate family members in the U.S.
Unlike other refugees, those admitted under the Lautenberg Amendment don’t have to prove they could face persecution on an individual basis. Today, the decades-old law mostly benefits Protestant Christians.
What actions has the U.S. already taken?
The Biden administration has so far authorized $107 million in humanitarian aid for Ukrainian refugees and civilians. According to the White House, the funds are designed to provide food, medical services, thermal blankets and other relief to people displaced by the conflict in Ukraine.
A massive government spending bill passed by Congress in early March allocated $6.8 billion in U.S. humanitarian assistance funds for Ukrainian refugees.
On March 3, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas made an estimated 75,100 Ukrainians in the U.S. eligible for Temporary Protected Status (TPS), a humanitarian program that allows beneficiaries to live and work in the U.S. legally while their home countries are beset by war or other crises.
Only Ukrainians who were in the U.S. as of March 1 are eligible for the 18-month TPS program.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) also announced on March 3 that it temporarily halted deportations to Ukraine due to Russia’s invasion. ICE also suspended deportations to Belarus, Georgia, Hungary, Moldova, Poland, Romania, Russia and Slovakia.
Advocacy groups have also asked DHS to grant an estimated 1,700 Ukrainians studying at U.S. schools Special Student Relief, which would reduce their course load requirements and allow them to work.
On March 11, U.S. border officials were instructed to consider exempting Ukrainians from a Trump-era pandemic restriction so that they can enter the country to request asylum. Other migrants continue to be expelled under the border restriction, which is colloquially known as Title 42.