More than 3.7 million people have fled Ukraine in the month since Russia's invasion began. United Nations officials said this kind of exodus has not been seen since World War II. And just as uncommon, some immigration attorneys say, is the quick response from countries welcoming refugees.
Ukrainian refugees are crossing mainly into Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania and Moldova. Currently, Poland has taken the majority of refugees. Ukrainians also are trying to reunite with family members in the United States and have even arrived at the U.S.-Mexico border.
Given the growing pressure on the Biden administration to find direct paths for displaced Ukrainians to come to the United States, the White House announced Thursday it would welcome as many as 100,000 Ukrainians and others fleeing the eastern European nation.
But is the U.S. accepting Ukrainian refugees differently from Afghan refugees, who similarly fled war in large numbers?
"Absolutely," said Ally Bolour, an immigration lawyer in California, adding, "I really need to preface by saying that it's amazing that the U.S. is going to let in supposedly 100,000 Ukrainian refugees."
But, Bolour said, there is a disparity between the ways the U.S. has welcomed Afghans and Ukrainians, starting with the Temporary Protected Status (TPS) designation. That program provides legal status in the United States and protection from deportation for up to 18 months. It also provides work permits for people to work legally in the country.
For Ukraine, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas announced its TPS designation a month after Russia's invasion.
For Afghanistan, the administration didn't grant TPS for Afghan refugees living in the United States until about seven months after the U.S. left Afghanistan.
"I'm not criticizing the announcement that Ukrainians are getting in," Bolour said. "It's to show the comparison and contrast. It's just to show that there's a disparity."
Stephen Yale-Loehr, an immigration law professor at Cornell University, agreed that the U.S. was quick to announce TPS for Ukrainian refugees but noted that both Ukrainians and Afghans have to go through the normal immigration system.
"And we don't have a good system for allowing people to come to the United States quickly," Yale-Loehr said.
Yale-Loehr said that for Afghan refugees, the humanitarian parole process has been overwhelmed by more than 40,000 applicants, many of whom have been waiting for six months for a decision on their cases.
"I don't see how the administration is going to be able to speed up processing with the expected flood of humanitarian parole applications from Ukrainians. And if the administration does speed it up for Ukrainians, I think there will be legitimate complaints about why they were able to do it for Ukrainians so much more quickly than for Afghans and people from other countries," Yale-Loehr said.
Humanitarian parole is special permission given to those hoping to enter the United States under emergency circumstances. While it does not automatically lead to permanent residency, parolees can apply for legal status — either through the asylum process or other forms of sponsorship, if available — once they're in the U.S.
U.S. Refugee Admissions Program
Refugee resettlement is a complex bureaucratic process with strict vetting to determine whom to accept for resettlement.
But with the White House promise to welcome 100,000 Ukrainians and others fleeing the Russian invasion, some experts doubt the administration's ability to process refugees faster than its current pace.
Yale-Loehr said he does not believe the administration will be able to admit anywhere near 100,000 people in the next six months.
"I think it will take a lot longer than people think to get those people here," he added.
The process, for both Ukrainians and Afghans, begins at the United Nations, when a person is officially designated a refugee.
Once applicants pass the initial U.N. screening, they are referred to the United States. At this point, the refugees have to pass interviews, medical exams and background checks. Getting the green light to travel to the U.S. can take two to five years.
The number of refugees allowed under the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program was dramatically cut under the Trump administration, leaving fewer resources within the government and resettlement agencies to handle the significant increase of refugee applications and arrivals.
"The refugee resettlement agencies were devastated by the cuts that the Trump administration made. So, they're not geared up again to be able to handle large flows of refugees yet. And it often takes a year or more for background checks for normal refugee processing. I don't know how they're going to speed that up," Yale-Loehr said.
This fiscal year's cap for refugee acceptance is 125,000 but only 6,494 refugees were admitted in the first five months mostly because refugee resettlement agencies are straining to support 76,000 Afghan evacuees, who are not counted toward the refugee cap.
Title 42 exemptions
Some Ukrainians have traveled to Mexico to arrive at the U.S.-Mexico border where they hope to receive asylum in the United States.
Under current U.S. immigration law, officials at the border are expected to screen those who say they are afraid to go back to their home country because of persecution or ongoing conflict or a significant chance they might be tortured or killed.
But reaching the border does not guarantee immediate access into the U.S. because of the Title 42 guideline, which is a pandemic-related policy that mandates the rapid expulsion of migrants as a public health precaution. However, the Biden administration has agreed to allow U.S. immigration officials to use discretion toward Ukrainians at the border and decide on a case-by-case basis
"They just made an exception for Ukrainians as part of our foreign policy. I don't think there's anything in the legal framework that necessarily would have exempted Ukrainians from Title 42. So, I think they just made a foreign policy decision that they were about to let Ukrainians cross but not Russians or Afghans or people from other countries," Yale-Loehr said.
As reported by the San Diego Tribune, Ukrainians have walked to the San Ysidro Port of Entry to request asylum and were allowed entry into the country.
Support from the American public for Ukrainian refugees and Afghan refugees also differs.
In March, a YouGov poll of 1,500 Americans showed that 54% of respondents are in favor of admitting Ukrainian refugees and 25% opposed.
For Afghan refugees, about 42% support welcoming Afghans.
Another poll, from Pew Research Center, showed that Democrats are more supportive of admitting Ukrainian refugees to the U.S. than are Republicans: 80% of Democrats said they supported admitting Ukrainian refugees, while for Republicans, the number was 57%.
A State Department spokesperson told VOA via email the U.S. commitment to Afghan refugees will not "wane as we open our doors to Ukrainians."
"We are proud to have welcomed more than 75,000 Afghans in the United States since Kabul fell in August 2021. We continue to welcome Afghans through Operation Allies Welcome, including more than 600 who arrived within the past two or so weeks. Our commitment to resettling Afghans – particularly those who served on behalf of the U.S. effort in Afghanistan – remains steadfast," a State Department spokesperson said.