The Volokh Conspiracy

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Building on the Success of Uniting for Ukraine

A new CBS article details the successes of a program enabling Americans to sponsor Ukrainian migrants fleeing the Russian invasion to live and work in the US.



CBS News recently published an article reviewing the impressive success of the Uniting for Ukraine program, which allows Americans to sponsor Ukrainian migrants fleeing Russia's brutal invasion of their country. Ukrainians with such sponsorship can live and work legally in the US for up to two years. Since it began two years ago, the program has enabled some 187,000 Ukrainians to come to the United States, begin working and contributing to our economy, and all with little controversy or opposition:

In April 2022, the Biden administration created an unprecedented program known as "Uniting for Ukraine," allowing an unlimited number of Ukrainians sponsored by Americans to come to the U.S. and work here legally without having to go through the lengthy visa process….

In two years, U.S. immigration officials have approved more than 236,000 cases under the Uniting for Ukraine program, according to the Department of Homeland Security. As of the end of March, more than 187,000 Ukrainians had arrived in the U.S. under the policy….

Another 350,000 Ukrainians have arrived in the U.S. outside of the sponsorship process since the start of the Russian invasion, mainly through temporary visas, according to DHS…

Republican-led states, for example, have filed lawsuits against virtually every major Biden administration immigration policy, including a similar sponsorship program for migrants from Cuba, Haiti, Nicaragua and Venezuela. But the Uniting for Ukraine program has not been challenged in court. In fact, some Republican lawmakers have expressed support for welcoming Ukrainian refugees.

While the arrival of hundreds of thousands of migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border has strained resources in some communities like New York City, Chicago and Denver, the resettlement of Ukrainians has not provoked the same backlash, nor triggered major political problems for the Biden administration.

Unlike the program for Cubans, Haitians, Nicaraguans and Venezuelans, which is capped at 30,000 approvals per month, Uniting for Ukraine has no numerical limit. Applications for the Uniting for Ukraine program are also adjudicated fairly quickly, sometimes in a matter of weeks or even days — a rarity in a backlogged and understaffed U.S. immigration system.

Krish O'Mara Vignarajah, president and CEO of the refugee resettlement organization Global Refuge, said Uniting for Ukraine "shows how the U.S. can act with swiftness when it wants to."

Those who come to the U.S. under Uniting for Ukraine need an American sponsor willing to help them financially, and they can work legally immediately after setting foot on U.S. soil. Congress also made the first wave of Ukrainian refugees eligible for refugee resettlement benefits, such as food stamps.

Migrants coming from the southern border can't work legally until 180 days after they request asylum. They're also generally not eligible for federal benefits. Cubans, Haitians, Nicaraguan and Venezuelans who arrive under the other sponsor policy have to apply for a work permit before they can work legally.

The combination of private sponsorship and immediate work permits has enabled U4U participants to make a quick transition to being self-supporting, minimizing any burden on public resources.

I myself am a sponsor of two families in the U4U program (eight people in all), and have also served as an informal advisor to philanthropic efforts that have led to the sponsorship of several dozen more people (some in U4U and others in the very similar CNVH program mentioned in the CBS article, which applies to Cubans, Haitians, Nicaraguan and Venezuelans). Thus, I can personally testify to these programs' relative effectiveness, especially in comparison with the normally sluggish pace of immigration visa approval. The key to the success is the relative lack of regulation and bureaucratic supervision.

The CBS article does err slightly on one point: while U4U participants are allowed to work immediately, for that authorization to continue, they must file a Form I-765 on the USCIS website within 90 days. In that respect, they are similar to the CNVH participants. In my experience, however, applications for these forms are processed quickly—in sharp contrast to work permits for asylum seekers, which are usually not granted for many months or even years, thereby making it difficult or impossible for those migrants to support themselves, and creating burdens for local governments.

Uniting for Ukraine and CNVH are valuable potential models for future immigration policy. I have long argued that they should be expanded to migrants from other countries, particularly those fleeing war, violence, and oppression. Dropping the 30,000 per month cap on CNVH participants and expanding that program to encompass more countries would also help alleviate pressure on the southern border. The U4U policy of granting immediate work permits should be extended to asylum seekers.

U4U and CNVH do have one major limitation: they only allow migrants to stay for up to two years, though in the case of U4U the White House has granted participants the right to apply for "re-parole," thereby giving them another two years. Experience shows that migrants fleeing war and oppression will often need permanent refuge. That's both good for them, and a way to enable them to make greater contributions to our economy and society. Congress should enact adjustment acts giving U4U, CNVH, and other migrants entering through "parole" programs (e.g.—Afghans) permanent residency.

The CBS article notes the sharp contrast between the almost universally favorable reception of U4U and substantial right-wing opposition to the very similar CNVH program, as well as other efforts to expand legal immigration. It's notable that twenty red states have filed a dubious lawsuit against CNVH (a federal court recently ruled the states lack standing to bring the suit), but did not challenge U4U, even though the legal rationales for the two programs are nearly identical.

As the CBS article implies, it's hard to avoid the conclusion that the difference is at least in part due to the race, ethnicity, and religion of the migrants in question. Most Ukrainian refugees are white Christians, while those from the CNVH countries are mostly non-white, and the Afghans, of course, are mostly both non-white and Muslim.

Not all U4U participants are white Christians. For example, one of my sponsoree families are members of the Azeri Muslim minority (thus, neither white nor Christian, at least not in the way whiteness is usually understood in America). Some Ukrainian refugees are members of other minority groups, such as Jews and Crimean Tatars (the latter are also predominantly Muslim). But the majority of Ukrainian migrants are white and Christian, and that is certainly how they are perceived by most Americans.

While it would be naive to discount racial and religious prejudices, it is possible to overcome them. America has previously welcomed non-white and/or non-Christian refugees fleeing oppression from places as varied as Cuba and Vietnam. The Afghan Adjustment Act enjoys broad support in Congress (it was included in the recent bipartisan Senate border bill), and might yet be passed. Hopefully, we can build on the success of Uniting for Ukraine, despite political obstacles.