In just over a month, more than 45,000 Americans have submitted applications to resettlein their homeland as part of the largest U.S. private sponsorship program for refugees in decades, according to Department of Homeland Security (DHS) data shared with CBS News.
As of Wednesday, just over 6,500 Ukrainians had arrived in the U.S. under the Uniting for Ukraine program, which began on April 25, the DHS figures show. U.S. immigration officials have also authorized the travel of 27,000 additional Ukrainians identified by American sponsors.
The number of applications and case approvals indicate the Uniting for Ukraine program could quickly become the largest official private refugee sponsorship initiative in U.S. history, eclipsing a program shut down in the 1990s that allowed U.S. groups to finance the resettlement of 16,000 refugees over six years.
"I think this is a great case study for what is possible when the United States government gives the option for individuals and community groups to step forward and directly resettle refugees," said Matthew La Corte, an immigration policy analyst at the Niskanen Center, a centrist think tank.
Together with the admission of 22,000 Ukrainians along the southern border, the 6,500 admissions and 27,000 expected arrivals under the United for Ukraine program could allow the U.S. to receive over half of the 100,000 Ukrainian refugees President Biden vowed to welcome, all within the next three months.
Historically, refugees fleeing war and violence have been resettled in the U.S. by nine resettlement organizations that receive funding from the federal government to help these newcomers access basic necessities and services, such as housing, food and job placements.
Through the Uniting for Ukraine program, the U.S. government is bypassing the traditional refugee system, enlisting everyday Americans and groups to directly finance the resettlement of Ukrainians displaced by the largest refugee crisis since World War II.
Unlike Canada and some European countries, the U.S. had not, until now, embraced private sponsorship of refugees. But the Biden administration, which has reversed dramatic Trump administration cuts to the refugee program, is planning to create a private sponsorship pilot program for all refugees by the end of 2022, a State Department spokesperson told CBS News.
"This will build on lessons learned from the U.S. government's efforts over the past year to stand up tailored private sponsorship initiatives to enable Americans to play a leading role in welcoming newly arrived Afghans and Ukrainians," the spokesperson added.
Roughly 7,300, or 15%, of the Americans who've filed requests to sponsor Ukrainians live in the New York metropolitan area, DHS statistics show. The other regions with the most would-be sponsors are Chicago, Seattle, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Miami, Washington, Sacramento, Portland and Cleveland.
"Everything is done electronically"
Unlike most U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) programs, which require paper records and typically take months or years to process cases, Uniting for Ukraine requests are being adjudicated in a matter of weeks or even days, a senior DHS official told CBS News.
"It is end-to-end electronic," the DHS official said, requesting anonymity to discuss the program. "We're not talking about mailing paperwork. We're not talking about mailing a file for someone to review. Everything is done electronically."
Roughly 300 USCIS employees have been trained to adjudicate Ukrainian sponsorship cases, the DHS official added, noting that roughly 50 of them are reviewing applications at any given time.
Prospective sponsors must first submit an application online. In determining whether applicants can sponsor Ukrainian refugees, USCIS examines their income, household size, the number of individuals they wish to sponsor and federal poverty guidelines, the senior DHS official said.
If the sponsors pass background checks and USCIS approves their sponsorship bid, the Ukrainians they are hoping to sponsor are allowed to upload their information, including vaccination records, to the agency's website. If they pass background checks, the Ukrainians are granted authorization to travel to the U.S.
Legally, Ukrainians with approved Uniting for Ukraine cases will not enter the U.S. with refugee status, which offers a path to permanent residency. Instead, U.S. immigration officials will process them under a humanitarian policy known as parole, allowing them to live and work in the U.S. for two years.
U.S. officials have said they're using the parole authority in part because they believe many Ukrainians are looking for temporary refuge, not permanent resettlement. But immigration policy experts said many Ukrainians may decide to stay, especially if the war in Ukraine continues for the foreseeable future.
"Because many Ukrainian refugees have family and loved ones in the United States, they may want to extend their stay here or become permanent residents," said Meredith Owen, policy director at Church World Service, which resettles refugees. "But beyond their familial connections and their fear of returning to a country devastated by war, many will have made deep connections in our local communities."
The Biden administration also used the parole authority last year to resettle more than 70,000 Afghan evacuees, including those who assisted the U.S. military, after the Taliban regained control of Kabul.
After undergoing processing at U.S. military sites, the vast majority of evacuated Afghans were resettled by the traditional refugee resettlement organizations, but a small number were assisted by groups of private U.S. citizens who formed "sponsor circles" under a pilot program the Biden administration created last fall.
"They want some stability"
Olena Kopchak, Albert Kodua and their 8-year-old daughter Yana fled Mykolaiv, Ukraine, on March 5, a week after Russian forces launched their military offensive. After a four-day journey by bus and foot across Moldova, Romania and Hungary, the family settled in Warsaw, Poland's capital.
Since Russian forces invaded Ukraine, millions of Ukrainians have fled the country, and nearly 5 million refugees remain scattered across Europe, according to the United Nations.
Kopchak and her family opted not to travel to the U.S.-Mexico border to seek entry there, a journey 23,000 Ukrainians undertook in March and April, DHS data show. Instead, they waited in Poland, hoping that Kopchak's sister in New Jersey, Svitlana Rogers, could help them get to the U.S. directly.
Rogers, a U.S. citizen who left Ukraine in 2011, said she applied to sponsor her sister, brother-in-law and niece a few days after the Uniting for Ukraine program began accepting applications online.
In addition to submitting documents showing she could financially support her family members, Rogers said she had to locate records related to her sister's residence, assets and vaccinations in Ukraine.
Rogers said she's ready to host her family in her home in Pennington, New Jersey. Her sister and niece's cases have been approved, but her brother-in-law, a Georgian citizen, has yet to receive authorization to travel to the U.S.
"They're excited to come to the states. And they're excited to start their lives [here], even if they have to start this from zero. They want some stability. They want some reassurance," Rogers said, translating comments made by her sister and brother-in-law during a recent interview.
Kopchak, Rogers' sister, said she and her husband start their mornings by checking their emails, hoping to receive news about Kodua's case.
Asked if they would only come to the U.S. if they are able to do so together, Kopchak and Kodua replied in unison, "yes."