The Biden administration is considering ways to expedite the arrival of Ukrainian refugees to the United States amid the historic influx across Europe of Ukrainians fleeing war from Russia, according to US officials.
But the administration faces legal hurdles in doing so, particularly in granting refugee status to Ukrainians, and has instead repeatedly stressed that “the vast, vast majority of refugees want to stay in neighboring countries,” as White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Thursday. adding: “That’s where we’ve focused our energies at this point.”
That focus comes in the form of US aid: $293 million so far, with an additional $4 billion specifically for humanitarian aid in the new funding bill that President Joe Biden signed into law more early this week.
But as needs grow – as cities like Warsaw and countries like Moldova become overwhelmed – there is growing pressure on the White House, including from some US lawmakers, to do more. .
The refugee resettlement process, however, is complex and time-consuming, with very few ways to expedite cases from the time they are returned to the United States by the UN refugee agency, in going through the verification process until they are resettled in a local community.
But Secretary of State Antony Blinken confirmed that the administration is “looking at things that we can do ourselves and do directly.”
“As this and if this continues, as the numbers increase, as the burden increases for European partners, we will certainly do all we can to help,” he added on Thursday, saying that it was “something we’re very focused on right now”. and previewing “more to say about this in the future”.
So far, the White House has ordered certain measures. Last week, the Department of Homeland Security announced that it had granted Temporary Protected Status to Ukrainians already in the United States by March 1, allowing them to legally stay and work for at least the next 18 month.
Additionally, US embassies and consulates in the region have expedited visa processing for immediate family members of US citizens, but they are overwhelmed.
“We are devoting a tremendous amount of resources to assisting U.S. citizens in this region as well as processing visas, but the demand, as you can imagine, is very high,” a senior administration official said. American. “We are unable to handle the volume of people considering this as an option.”
This pool of people is also already limited. Immigrant visas only apply to immediate family members as defined by US law – spouses, unmarried children under 21, and parents.
If a family member of a U.S. citizen does not fall into these categories, there is a process to ask U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services to approve their case, but this is not not expedited, according to the senior administration official, meaning their application could take months, even years.
Refugee advocates, however, say there are potentially thousands of Ukrainians for whom USCIS has confirmed their family relationship, but has not yet fully approved their petition – arguing that their cases can and should now be accelerated.
It’s unclear whether the administration weighs this. Blinken told reporters Thursday that they were “looking into what steps we could take for family reunification.”
Wait times for nonimmigrant visas are often shorter, and applicants may request that your application be expedited. But the senior administration official said there was a risk of being denied because it was “not the appropriate tool to start an immigration, refugee or resettlement process.”
“If your plan is to go to the United States and you have absolutely no idea what you will do after that – what I have to say on a human level is very understandable – as US consular officers in charge to enforce United States immigration law, they [Ukrainian applicants] would be well advised to have a lot more plan afterwards,” they said.
The Department of Homeland Security also has the ability to provide another type of temporary legal status known as humanitarian parole that allows an alien to enter the United States, usually for up to one year. Reuters reported that Customs and Border Patrol agents granted humanitarian parole to Ukrainians crossing the US-Mexico border.
DHS declined to comment on this information to ABC News.
“We are processing an individual’s request for humanitarian assistance as presented to us,” Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said Thursday. “We are looking at other programs we can implement to expand the pathways for humanitarian assistance.”
But DHS continues to use a public health authority known as Title 42 to return the majority of adults who attempt to cross the border to their home country. The policy was enacted at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic by the Trump administration, and despite intense pressure from the immigrant rights group and progressive Democrats, the Biden administration has yet to lift it.
Mayorkas said DHS has issued guidance to all CBP officers at the border reminding them of the exceptions to Title 42 authority and their connection to Ukrainian nationals “and all others” who attempt to make declarations of credible fears on the southern border. But Psaki said revoking Title 42 “would not be done in response to a war in a European country. It’s done by — a decision would be made by the CDC and then it would be implemented.”
However, the push to “speed up” the asylum process is unlikely to produce results, as the program is set by law and requires extensive guidance and vetting. The senior administration official said it ‘is not an emergency response program, so our focus would be on providing humanitarian assistance to keep people safe where they are at the moment’ .
For many refugees seeking to settle in the United States, this is a years-long process. There are already 7,000 Ukrainian refugees being resettled, according to Church World Service.
While Blinken said “of course we will take referrals” for new refugees, he also stressed that the administration is “looking at what steps we can take in the short term.”
Refugee resettlement agencies say the administration is considering using the Lautenberg program as a way to potentially fast-track refugee status. The Cold War-era program allows religious minorities, including Ukrainian Greek Catholics and Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Christians, to bring family members to the United States with refugee status.
One agency told ABC News there are thousands of Ukrainian candidates the United States could quickly admit, but it’s not clear the administration agrees.
ABC News’ Ben Gittleson and Sarah Kolinovsky contributed to this report.