If the United States is to even partially fulfill President Joe Biden’s pledge to admit up to 100,000 Ukrainian refugees, it will have to overcome massive backlogs in a system that managed to admit only 6,494 refugees in the first five months of this fiscal year.
The applicants, meanwhile, are likely to find themselves confronting a bewildering array of U.S. immigration laws and policies, many of which were put in place to manage – and in some cases restrict – a flood of would-be refugees from Latin America.
Biden commented on the flows of refugees in his March 26 remarks in Warsaw, Poland, where he said Americans should do “our part” to accommodate some of the 3.8 million refugees fleeing Russia’s invasion of their country, about half of whom are now in Poland.
“The fact that you have so many, so many Ukrainians seeking refuge in the, in this country of Poland, we understand that because we have, in our southern border, thousands of people a day — literally, not figuratively — trying to get into the United States,” he said.
The White House has released few details about its plans for the Ukrainian refugees, but Biden officials said there are multiple pathways through which they can legally be admitted to the United States. These include the U.S. refugee program, humanitarian parole and family sponsorship through visa categories.
Some of those paths could lead to permanent residency and citizenship.
How significant is the 100,000 number?
The proposed number of admissions would be a significant increase over the current number of refugees authorized to come to the U.S. But they are not part of this fiscal year’s refugee cap.
President Biden raised the refugee cap to 125,000 for fiscal 2022, which began October 1, 2021. However, as of February 28, the government had only welcomed 6,494 refugees. In fiscal 2021, the United States admitted a total of 11,141 refugees from all parts of the world.
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.
What’s happening at the U.S. southern border?
Along the U.S.- Mexico border, immigration officials deal with people who hope to apply for asylum, a different pathway for immigrants seeking safety.
Since the pandemic began in March 2020, U.S. officials on the southern border have implemented Title 42, a pandemic-related policy that mandates the rapid expulsion of migrants as a public health precaution.
According to Customs and Border Patrol data, Title 42 has been used in most of the estimated 2 million expulsions of migrants from Brazil, Central America, Haiti, Mexico and Colombia. Other asylum-seekers from South America also have been rapidly expelled at ports of entry under the policy.
In February alone, U.S. border officials registered 164,973 migrant encounters. Of those, 91,513 were expelled either to the country they most recently passed through or their home country under Title 42. The rest could have been detained, allowed to seek asylum, paroled, or other possibilities.
However, the Biden administration has decided to allow U.S. immigration officials to use discretion with Ukrainians at the border and allow them to enter the United States on a case-by-case basis.
Who is an asylum-seeker?
Federal law allows people from other countries to seek asylum in the United States if they fear persecution at home. They must be present in the U.S. and prove a fear of persecution on one of five grounds: race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social class (the most vague of the five categories, it can include things like sexuality or caste).
To be granted asylum, applicants must meet three requirements, laid out by the U.N. Convention on Refugees in 1951 and adopted by the United States.
Applicants must prove:
They have a reasonable fear of persecution in their home country. Reasonable fear is defined by the United Nations as at least a 10% chance of persecution.
They must fear persecution on one of the five grounds.
They must prove the government of their home country is either involved in the persecution or unable to control it.
What does the government say about certain nationalities being allowed inside the U.S. while others are still being expelled?
VOA asked U.S. immigration officials for comment on some nationalities being exempted from Title 42. A U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) spokesperson responded in an email that the public health order remains in place with respect to single adults and family units. The spokesperson also said DHS continues to operate in accordance with the order to the “greatest extent possible.”
“Consistent with the CDC [public health] order, DHS continues to grant Title 42 exceptions to particularly vulnerable individuals of all nationalities for humanitarian reasons. All exceptions are made on a case-by-case basis,” the spokesperson wrote.
Is there a difference between applying for asylum versus applying as a refugee?
Yes, applying for asylum is a different process than applying to come to the U.S. as a refugee. Those who are allowed to apply for immigration status from outside the United States are refugees and come only if they are granted refugee status.
Asylum-seekers come into the U.S. and apply either at the border or once inside the country, whether they entered legally or not.
What issues can cause an asylum claim to be rescinded?
Waiting more than one year after entry to the U.S. before filing an application for asylum, having been involved in persecution of another group of people, committing a serious crime, or being a threat to U.S. security can derail an asylum claim.
Can the government deny asylum cases?
Yes. The government can deny asylum by finding that an applicant failed to meet one of the requirements, by finding that conditions in their country have significantly changed since the application was made, or by finding the applicant could live safely in another part of their own country.
It is incumbent on the asylum-seeker to show that their persecution derives from membership in one of the five categories, and that the persecution or threats come from the government or forces the government can't control.
Anita Powell contributed to this report.
An earlier version of this article erroneously cited immigrant admissions instead of refugee admissions in the lead paragraph.