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5 states account for half of 123,962 requests to sponsor Ukrainian refugees in U.S.

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More than half of the nearly 124,000 applications filed by Americans seeking to sponsor Ukrainians fleeing the war in their homeland have come from households in New York, Illinois, California, Washington state and Florida, according to unpublished Department of Homeland Security (DHS) data obtained by CBS News.

Since April 25, 123,962 people in the U.S. have applied to financially sponsor Ukrainian refugees through a private sponsorship program the U.S. government set up this spring, the DHS statistics show. In just over four months, 50,832 Ukrainians have arrived in the U.S. through the initiative.

As of Sept. 9, Americans in New York, Illinois and California had collectively submitted 46,265 requests to sponsor the resettlement of Ukrainians under the sponsorship policy, which the Biden administration dubbed Uniting for Ukraine. Another 17,844 applications originated from Washington and Florida, according to the DHS data.

Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Ohio, Texas and Michigan round out the top 10 states with the most prospective sponsors of Ukrainian refugees. Meanwhile, 68,121, or 55%, of the sponsorship requests have originated from 10 metropolitan areas: New York City, Chicago, Seattle, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Sacramento, Miami, Portland, Cleveland and Detroit.

The concentration of the sponsorship requests in several states and cities mirrors the geographic composition of the Ukrainian-American population in the U.S. New York, California, Washington and Illinois were home to 55% of all Ukrainian immigrants in the U.S. as of 2019, according to a data analysis by the Migration Policy Institute. The metropolitan areas in New York, Chicago and Seattle, meanwhile, were home to the largest communities of Ukrainian immigrants.

"It makes sense that in places where there are a lot of Ukrainian-Americans there have been more sponsorship applications, probably from family members and also churches and other organizations that have supported Ukrainians in the United States and are now supporting Ukrainians abroad," said Julia Gelatt, a Migration Policy Institute analyst.

The Uniting for Ukraine program has become the main mechanism through which the U.S. government is fulfilling President Biden's pledge of welcoming some of the millions of Ukrainians displaced by the ongoing fighting between the U.S.-aligned government in Kyiv and Russian forces, which invaded Ukraine in late February.

Earlier this summer, the U.S. achieved Mr. Biden's goal of admitting 100,000 Ukrainians through a combination of the sponsorship initiative, the admission of more than 20,000 Ukrainians along the U.S.-Mexico border and the arrival of tens of thousands of Ukrainians on temporary and permanent visas. 

The tens of thousands of admissions in just a few months have made Uniting for Ukraine the largest formal private sponsorship refugee initiative in U.S. history, eclipsing a government program shuttered in the 1990s that allowed U.S. organizations to finance the resettlement of 16,000 refugees

In addition to receiving an average of over 900 Uniting for Ukraine sponsorship requests per day, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) has adjudicated these cases electronically and in a matter of weeks, two rare characteristics for programs run by the agency, which largely rely on paper records and are plagued by significant delays. As of Sept. 9, 87,169 Ukrainians had been granted permission to travel to the U.S. under the policy.

While Ukrainians coming to the U.S. under Uniting for Ukraine are escaping a country beset by war, they are not arriving with traditional refugee status, which provides a path to citizenship. Instead, Ukrainians are being processed under a humanitarian policy known as parole, which allows them to live and work legally in the U.S., but only for two years.

The Biden administration has said that Ukrainians are being processed under the parole authority because most of them are seeking a temporary safe haven from the war and intend to return to Ukraine eventually. But many of those who have arrived are already developing roots in the U.S. — and there's no telling when the war in Ukraine will end.

Natalia Agaieva's youngest son Yehor, 6, for example, started kindergarten in suburban Washington on Tuesday. Her oldest son Artem, 9, attended his first day of elementary school last week. On Monday, Agaieva started her first job, a part-time gig with the local refugee resettlement group that has been helping her family settle in Washington.

"Our children now sleep peacefully. They don't wake up from air sirens," Agaieva said. "I'm so happy to see that our kids like it here, and that they enjoy and live a full life."

Natalia Agaieva, her husband and their son Artem celebrate their youngest son Yehor's sixth birthday in the U.S. Yuliya Wold

Agaieva fled her home near Odessa, Ukraine, with her mother, husband and their two sons after Russian forces invaded. They escaped to neighboring Poland, where they lived for several months. Soon after Uniting for Ukraine was launched, Agaieva's sister Yuliya Wold, a U.S. citizen and police sergeant in Everett, Washington, applied to sponsor them.

On June 23, Agaieva and her family arrived in Washington, where the Refugee and Immigrant Services Northwest, the organization she's now working for, agreed to temporarily help them rent a townhouse in Arlington, a town 40 miles north of Seattle. The group has also offered the family English-language courses, furniture and basic necessities.

Tetyana Sybiryakova, 63, Agaieva and Wold's mother, said she's felt welcomed in the U.S. Living with Wold in Everett, she said local residents have offered her hugs and words of encouragement when they've learned she hails from Ukraine.

"We have never met a person who has been indifferent to the struggle of Ukrainians," Sybiryakova said through a translator.

Sybiryakova is also grateful she's been able to access health care in the U.S. While they don't have refugee status, Ukrainians who arrive under the sponsorship program qualify for certain government refugee benefits, such as medical assistance and job placement, through a law passed by Congress this spring. However, they lack a path to U.S. citizenship.

Like the tens of thousands of Afghan refugees paroled into the U.S. over the past year, Ukrainans who decide or are forced to stay for the long-term may find themselves in legal limbo, unless Congress grants them permanent status. However, bipartisan efforts to legalize Afghan evacuees have stalled in Congress amid the broader gridlock over immigration issues.

"We have seen over and over in the U.S. that immigrants come expecting to stay temporarily, but the longer that people spend in the country, the deeper their roots grow and the more likely they are to stay permanently," Gelatt said. "It does seem very possible that, even should the war end and Ukraine move on to rebuild, many Ukrainians may want to stay."

Natalia Agaieva, center, and her family are greeted by relatives during their arrival in Seattle on June 23.  Yuliya Wold

Wold, who was also born in Ukraine and moved to the U.S. in the early 2000s, said her family is well aware that their legal authorization to be in the U.S. will expire in 2024. But she said it will still be difficult for them to return to Ukraine, since they're already establishing deep ties to the U.S.

"The thought of potentially going back to a war-torn country or a country that is in ruins is soul-crushing," Wold said.

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