Updated as of 5/10/2022:
As you can imagine we are working around the clock to respond to numerous inquiries from our Ukrainian clients and friends about the ways they can bring their families or support Ukrainian refugees trying to enter the United States. There are some ways that one can help speedily bring Ukrainian family members, friends and refugees into the US. The main challenge currently is not the documentation or visas, but the ability to logistically get here, or at least get to the US borders. But once the refugees arrive at the border, there are ways to support them, which we will discuss below.
What options exist for Ukrainian refugees trying to enter the US?
1) Current Visa. Obviously, if they have a valid US visa, they can use it to enter. The CBP is not expected to thoroughly examine their immigrant intent, purpose for the visit or etcetera. The DOS formally announced that the Covid vaccination requirement is currently waived for Ukrainian nationals. But, of course, the main challenge is to get here logistically.
2) Applying for a Visa at a US Consulate. Second option is to apply for a “visitor visa” through a US consulate in the country of their location, for example in Warsaw, Poland or other consulates in EU countries. This process is backlogged, first due to the pandemic and then, we are sure, it will be further backlogged due to this situation. The US Embassy in Warsaw, Poland recently updated its webpage stating that “Demand is extremely high, availability is low, and wait times and processing times are likely to be very lengthy… Ukrainians should not attempt to apply for non-immigrant visas in order to travel to the United States as refugees.” However, at the same website, the consulate states that spouse, child, or parent of a US citizen or green-card holder, can apply for expedited visitor visa processing for temporary stay, using this website: https://www.ustraveldocs.com/pl/en/nonimmigrant-visa to schedule an appointment. The consulate further instructs to select “Ukrainian with U.S. citizen or Legal Permanent Resident immediate family” when scheduling the appointment.
As of 4/11/2022, we are informed that it currently takes around 2-3 weeks to process visa applications for individuals with family members in the US.
3) Applying for Parole at a US Border Checkpoint. The third possible option is to flee to another country bordering the United States, meaning Canada or Mexico, and request to be paroled as refugees. Again, the challenge here is logistics of getting to Mexico or Canada. Mexico has electronic visa processing for Ukrainians. As of 4/11/2022, we are updated that Canada offers expedited “priority visa process” for Ukrainian nationals, which takes less than 10 days currently, and results in 10-year multi-entry visa to Canada, with 3- year stay period on each entry and 3-year work permit and study permit. Additionally, Canada offers job opportunities and other socio-economic assistance to Ukrainians entering Canada. Unfortunately, the United States is way behind in offering tangible support or even work permits to Ukrainian refugees. Therefore, for many, finding refuge in Canada may be a better option.
The process requesting parole at the US border may entail some detention time at the border before being allowed to enter the US. We recommend preparing a package of documents with which the refugees would arrive at the US border checkpoint. The documents are needed to demonstrate that they have family, friends, or other support in the United States. It is also important to have thorough documentation of their identities, such as passports, birth certificates, and national identity documents. The more detailed this support package and identity information is, the more likely the arriving refugees will be faster processed and will be able to avoid lengthy detentions. This package would include affidavits or sworn statements and financial support documents, such as bank statements, tax return copies, evidence of assets and so on, from the US sponsors in the United States. Anyone can be a sponsor, I repeat anyone, it does not have to be a relative or a family member; it can be a random person in the US is willing to help, support and accommodate the applicant.
As of 4/11/2022, we are informed that there are two open pedestrian check-points at the border in Tijuana. All Ukrainian nationals are being allowed to enter the US and they are paroled for 1 year. ICE issues Notice to Appear in Immigration Court, but they do not file it with the court. They are processing approximately 300-500 cases per day. On 4/21/2022, the Biden administration announced that they will open a streamlined refugee admission program “Uniting for Ukraine” to admit 100,000 Ukrainian refugees, and from that point on, will no longer parole Ukrainians arriving at the US borders, like they do now.
Update 4/25/2022: DHS opened online filing of affidavit of support under “Uniting for Ukraine” refugee program. According to the previous announcement, the parole window at the border would close at this time.
Update 5/10/2022: Family units are still allowed to enter the United States without being detained if they ask for asylum protection. Since there is an ongoing war, it is reasonable and legal to request asylum. Once asylum is requested at the border, the families will be allowed to enter. But, whether they will be granted asylum eventually depends on many factors. See below section on Asylum. Also see the our website page describing what is asylum, who is eligible, how to apply and what to expect.
4) Humanitarian Parole. Number four is filling an application for a Humanitarian Parole affirmatively in the US. This entails preparing and filing a USCIS form I-131 and providing evidence of financial support as explained above. A Humanitarian Parole process was specifically intended for such urgent humanitarian needs. It was meant to be a swift and speedy process. However, unfortunately, as many other immigration procedures, it also fell significantly behind its original purpose. It used to take 2-3 weeks and was designed for any US person to sponsor and request urgent permission to enter for any individual outside of the US, based on urgent humanitarian reasons. This also been backlogged due to first the pandemic and then situation in Afghanistan where thousands of HP applications have been filed for Afghan nationals after the US withdrawal. We filed HP for some Afghanis, and it took 7-8 months before it was processed. The DHS simply does not have enough resources and officers to consider the HP applications as fast as it was intended to be.
5) “Uniting for Ukraine” aka 100,000 Ukrainian Refugees program. The US government previously announced that we will admit 100,000 Ukrainian refugees. On 4/21/2022, the government announced that they will open a streamlined refugee admission program “Uniting for Ukraine” to admit 100,000 Ukrainian refugees. The application portal is expected to open on 4/25/2022. Applicants will require a US sponsor and will go through background checks and vetting process. While the government promises that the process will be “streamlined”, it also promises “rigorous vetting” and application review process. It remains to be seen how fast it will be.
Update: the portal and instructions are finally published: Click Here for “Uniting for Ukraine” Instructions. Seems like a simple process, though we are yet to see.
Update 5/10/2022: Our clients and constituents report that the application process is smooth and very fast. The travel authorizations are received via email within couple days. It is important to note that applications must be filed for each beneficiary, despite their age. In other words, if you are sponsoring a mother and a child, you need to go through separate process for each, and they will receive separate emails with a travel authorization for each. Some applicants are confused about this because each application asks detailed information about family members traveling with them, and it appears that the family members will be listed as derivatives in the same application. That’s not the case. Each individual must be sponsored separately.
6) Expediting Current Petitions and Applications. All current and pending immediate family petitions and consular processing cases can be expedited due the current situation. What this means is that if there is a US citizen or permanent resident sponsoring their spouses or children, or in case of a US citizen sponsoring their parents, the processing of those petitions and applications can be expedited.
- Expediting a USCIS Petition or Application (e.g., I-130, Petition for Alien Relative or I-131, Application for Travel Document): To do that, you would need to contact the USCIS at (800) 375-5283 and provide the receipt number of your petition and request to expedite the case. Although the situation in Ukraine is a common knowledge, don’t be offended when they ask you to provide detailed reasons. The USCIS representatives are tasked to ask those questions no matter what. The USCIS will ask for reasons and will either approve it or send you an email asking for additional documentation. Note that expediting a petition for any relatives other than immediate family members of US citizens or permanent residents is not going to help. So, if you have a petition for your sibling or child above 21, an expedite request is not going to help, because the process for those beneficiaries is not delayed due to a backlog but due to a congressionally mandated limitations on the number of immigrant visas available for non-immediate relatives, such as siblings or children older than 21.
- Expediting Consular Processing: To expedite a case which is at the consulate, you will need to send an email directly to the US consulate and provide the Consular Case Number, which is what you received from NVC, and ask the consulate to process the interview for your family member as soon as possible. Many consulates, thankfully, do accept such expedite requests. The same limitation for non-immediate relatives applies as described above. The current default consulate for processing immigrant visas for Ukrainian nationals (e.g. the US consulate which now replaces the consulate in Kyiv) is the U.S. consulate in Frankfurt, Germany. If you had an immigrant visa (green-card) case which has now been interrupted due to the closure of the U.S. Consulate in Kyiv, you should contact the U.S. Consulate in Frankfurt, Germany via this email: [email protected].
- Expediting Asylum Interview or Decision: To expedite your asylum interview or decision, you will need to email directly to the asylum office. The asylum offices’ email addresses can be found via this link: https://egov.uscis.gov/office-locator/#/asy. You will need to click on your state, and then click on the link of the asylum office to see their email address. When you email the asylum office, make sure to include the A#, DOB, full name of the applicant, and current address. Attach any documents you may have to support the urgency and write explanation and request in the text of your email.
The second question is – what should Ukrainians do after they enter the US and what are the options for those Ukrainians who are currently in the United States. Other than providing them with financial support and accommodations, the immigration options here are as follows:
1) Temporary Protected Status (TPS). Ukraine has been designated as a TPS country for 18 months and applications can be filed as of 4/19/2022. Previously, the designation was applicable only to those who entered the US before 3/1/2022. Now, the DHS published the rule and extended the date of entry to 4/11/2022. This means that all Ukrainian citizens, who were in the US as of 4/11/2022, will be able to apply for TPS. The applications can be filed starting from 4/19/2022. This will allow Ukrainian citizens to remain and work in the United States. TPS holder can also get a permission to travel in and out of the country. TPS can be extended as long as the designation is renewed. As a way of example, nationals of some countries have been under temporary protected status for many years, including Syrians (since 2012), Haiti (since 2011), Nicaragua (1999), Venezuela (2021), Yemen (2015), Honduras (1999) Nepal (2015) and so one. You get the point. TPS status will likely be extended for many years. Additionally, it is likely that the DHS will “re-designate” the TPS, to allow those Ukrainians who entered the United States after March 1, 2022 to also apply for TPS.
To apply for TPS, applicant must complete the USCIS Form I-821. You can file an application for work permit along with the application for TPS by filing the Form I-765. Finally, if you would like to travel outside of the United States, for example to Poland to visit your relatives, you can also request an Advance Parole by filing Form I-131. There are filing fees associated with each of these applications. The TPS filing fee is minor $50. But the work permit (EAD) and travel authorization filing fees are $410 and $660. But all of these fees can be waived if the applicant can demonstrate financial inability to pay. A fee waiver request form is Form I-912. Furthermore, all of these applications can be also expedited for urgent humanitarian reasons, severe financial loss and US national interest. Click here for the USCIS page describing the requirements and criteria for placing an expedite request.
To place an expedite request, you must first file the application which you want to expedite and obtain the USCIS receipt number confirming that your case has been accepted and pending. Then, you must call the USCIS at (800) 375-5283. When the automated agent asks for the purpose of your call, say “expedite request”. It will ask if you would like to place a request or learn how to make a request; say “I want to make a request”. There may be a very long hold before an agent picks up the phone, but be patient, they eventually do. If you call USCIS at around 8am EST, you may be able to get through immediately.
Once your call is picked up, the agent will ask for the reason of your expedite request. In most cases, the answer will be “significant humanitarian reasons”, and then you should describe the reason. For example: “I am a refugees from Ukraine without much financial support and I need work permit to work and feed myself/my family…” or for travel authorization: “I am a TPS applicant here but my family members are still in Poland, and I need urgent travel to be able to see them. Once the expedite request is placed, the USCIS may either approve it, deny it, or send you an email asking for additional information or documentation.
2) Relief from Deportation. Anyone who is in the US currently facing deportation, i.e., in removal proceedings in immigration courts, can apply for Prosecutorial Discretion. This process has been available for nationals of any countries who do not have significant criminal convictions in the US and can demonstrate favorable factors. It would allow the beneficiary to remain in the US and to obtain a work permit. As stated above, Ukrainians can also apply for TPS, which will also prevent deportation.
3) Asylum. The current asylum procedures allow individuals, who have reasonable fear from returning to their home countries, to apply for asylum in the United States. While anyone having fear may apply for asylum, it does not mean that the asylum will be granted. To qualify for asylum the applicant must demonstrate that there is a reasonable possibility of persecution based on one of enumerated protected grounds. You can read more about asylum application process here, including an animated video explaining the steps: https://www.islawfirm.com/immigration/asylum/.
Usually, general economic conditions or war do not create basis for asylum. However, an argument can be made that Russia is committing genocide and war crimes in Ukraine based on the nationality (protected asylum grounds) and that the Ukrainian government is unable to protect at this time. Such an argument was successfully made in a case in immigration court and the immigration judge granted asylum on this basis to a Ukrainian national. This does not mean that the same argument will work in every case, but there is at least a plausible argument.
Once an asylum application is filed, the USCIS will issue a receipt and start the clock for EAD filing. 150 days after the date of asylum application, the applicant and family members can file their EAD applications, which will be processing within 30 days as long as they join one of the two immigrant advocacy groups CASA or ASAP.
4) Work Permits for Students (F-1 status holders). Students from Ukraine can apply for emergency work permits by filing a form I-765 with the USCIS and asking for emergency work permits due to unexpected financial hardships they are experiencing due to the situation in Ukraine. Such applications can be also expedited, so that you would not need to wait for many months of regular processing. You can read the information and application instructions for Ukrainian students in the Federal Register published on 4/19/2022. For USCIS instructions click here.
While we are doing everything we can to provide as much guidance and support for Ukrainians and those who want to help and support Ukrainian nationals unfortunately, our resources are limited. We post this article in effort to answer many of the questions we are currently being asked, and we will continue providing further updates and information as they become available. May God help Ukraine and everyone else who is suffering from the criminal Russian regime and aggression.
We are grateful for numerous offers of assistance from US public who read this blog. We receive emails, comments and calls offering housing and financial assistance for the Ukrainian refugees in the United States. At this point, there is not a significant influx of Ukrainian refugees into the US, mostly because there is no direct refugee admission program in place for Ukrainians. Most of the Ukrainians who do arrive in the United States usually have relatives, friends and support. The highest priority is helping displaced Ukrainians still in Ukraine or those who fled to the neighboring countries. We currently work with a Ukrainian aid organization in the US called United Help Ukraine (https://unitedhelpukraine.org/). UHU sends aid and supplies from the United States directly to Ukraine. They are very effective and transparent. If you would like to help, please consider donating to UHU.
By: Ismail T. Shahtakhtinski, Esq.
To contact us, please email [email protected] or call/text: 703-527-1779.