The Volokh Conspiracy

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Uniting for Ukraine Private Refugee Sponsorship Program Breaks Through Bureaucratic Red Tape

In sharp contrast to the sclerotic traditional refugee admissions program, the new private refugee sponsorship program enables Ukrainians fleeing war and repression to enter the US quickly and relatively easily. As a participating sponsor myself, I have firsthand knowledge of its effectiveness.


The Biden Administration's new Uniting for Ukraine program has enabled Ukrainians fleeing Russia's brutal invasion and repression to enter the United States far more quickly and easily than would have been possible through the sclerotic traditional refugee admission system. This success can be expanded on in the future. The Wall Street Journal has a helpful summary of the program and its success (unfortunately paywalled; but there are various legal ways around it):

Mariia Holovan left Ukraine on a bus to Poland, waited for what felt like forever at the border, flew to Chicago, then connected to Charlotte, N.C., and met an American named Grant Jones. Together they went to her new home in the United States…..

Their unlikely meeting was a long time coming…..

But maybe the most unexpected of the many forces that brought Ms. Holovan and Mr. Jones together was a U.S. government program that worked because it barely resembled one.

It was fast. It was efficient. And it bulldozed through the roadblocks of Washington's immigration bureaucracy to clear a pathway for Ukrainians.

Ukrainians who qualified were granted immediate humanitarian parole to live and then work in the U.S. for two years as long as they had sponsors here vowing to support them financially. There were many who wanted to come—and even more Americans who wanted them here. The numbers behind the program called Uniting for Ukraine were staggering: 171,000 applications to be sponsors, 121,000 travel authorizations for Ukrainians and roughly 85,000 arriving since April, said a U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services spokesman.

By contrast, 25,465 refugees from around the world resettled in the U.S. with a path to citizenship in the government's fiscal 2022, according to State Department data. The prior year, it was 11,411, the fewest in the U.S. refugee program's history….

The war in Ukraine was a crisis that required a nimble policy response, but the immigration system was not the first place anyone would look to find it.

Then the White House's commitment to accept 100,000 Ukrainians after the invasion created an unusual mandate for the Department of Homeland Security: make it easier for people to escape a war. The existing refugee program is supposed to respond to humanitarian emergencies, said Julia Gelatt, a senior analyst at the Migration Policy Institute, but it doesn't serve that urgent role with its slow timeline for vetting and processing…..

The authorities at U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services found ways to rewrite the rules for this exodus. The concept of temporary parole and model of private sponsorship dramatically streamlined the process. The accelerated program built around electronic applications allowed Ukrainians to seek refuge online and skip the paperwork normally required. The government even collaborated with a nonprofit that matched Americans and Ukrainians. Entering the country took weeks instead of years as a result. This idea of so many displaced people getting to the U.S. so quickly was "completely unheard of," said Matthew La Corte, an immigration policy expert at the Niskanen Center think tank.

I myself am a participating sponsor in the Uniting for Ukraine program, and can thereby testify first-hand to its effectiveness. Like the North Carolina family featured in the Wall Street Journal article, my wife and I created a profile on the Welcome Connect, a free nonprofit website that matches would-be US sponsors with Ukrainian refugees seeking them. Within a few days, we connected with a Ukrainian family, and agreed to sponsor them. I then filled the necessary paperwork at the USCIS website. In sharp contrast to the normal glacial pace of the federal government's immigration bureaucracy, we got a response granting entry authorization within less than ten days after I submitted the forms (a process which you can do entirely online). The family - a couple and their 2.5 year-old-daughter - will be arriving sometime within the next two weeks - less than two months after we started the process of becoming sponsors.

Some parts of the process were still unnecessarily annoying and bureaucratic. Communication with the Ukrainian family was greatly eased by the fact that I am a native speaker of Russian (which most Ukrainians also know). Things would have been tougher if we could only communicate in English, though I know other US sponsors have nonetheless successfully coped with this problem.

Despite these caveats, Uniting for Ukraine is a massive improvement over traditional refugee admissions policy. In a July Washington Post article, coauthored with Canadian refugee policy specialist Sabine El-Chidiac, we describe how the US can build on the program and expand it into a more general system of private refugee sponsorship for refugees fleeing war and oppression around the world. As we explain, we can also adapt elements of Canada's generally successful private refugee sponsorship system. Such a system would enable the US to take in many more refugees at little or no added expense to taxpayers. And any expenses would be easily outweighed by the economic contributions the migrants make after they get settled.

The Biden Administration has already created a similar program for migrants fleeing Venezuela's brutally repressive socialist government, though unlike Uniting for Ukraine it it has a numerical cap of only 24,000 participants. The Venezuelan refugee crisis has not attracted as much attention as the Ukrainian one. But it is in fact of comparable magnitude, with some 6 million people fleeing the regime's socialist oppression over the last few years. Next year, the Administration plans to create a more general private refugee sponsorship pilot program, though its parameters are still unclear.

Despite its virtues, Uniting for Ukraine still has at least two significant limitations. One is that the residency and work permits received by participants currently last for only two years. Experience with past conflicts shows that many refugees will need permanent homes, not just temporary ones. Permanence also enables them to make greater economic and social contributions to American society. The second is that the program currently rests largely on the discretion of the executive. If the political winds shift and President Biden (or a successor) decides to terminate it, participants will be left out in the cold, and potentially subject to deportation. Congress should act to fix these flaws.

Finally, critics can legitimately argue that, even with the creation of a limited similar program for Venezuelans, it is unjust that that private refugee sponsorship is available to Ukrainian refugees, but not those fleeing comparable horrors elsewhere in the world. This critique has some merit. But, as I have argued previously, the solution is not to bar Ukrainians (or Venezuelans) but to "level up" by making private refugee sponsorship available to others, as well. Hopefully, the success of Uniting for Ukraine can help make that possible.