May 18, 2022

Responsibility for Ukrainian Refugees Shifts to Individual American Sponsors Like Austin Woman

Reporting Texas

The city of Kyiv, Ukraine, is pictured beyond the historic Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra, an Eastern Orthodox Christian monastery. Stock photo by Eugene on Unsplash

Alex Warnken, born and raised in Russia, was helping volunteers along the U.S.-Mexico border translate medical documents from Ukrainian to English when one of the volunteers asked if she knew anyone willing to take in several refugees. 

Warnken, who knows what it’s like to adjust to a new country, immediately offered her home in Austin to three Ukrainians  — Yuliia Burlaka and her 8-year-old daughter, Anfisa, and Yuliia’s sister Yana Maliushytska. They are scheduled to arrive in Austin in mid-May. 

“I wanted to host because I feel responsible in some way, like maybe we didn’t do enough,” said Warnken, a 39-year-old occupational therapist working in brain injury rehabilitation. “Putin has been president since I was a senior in high school. How did we let this happen?” 

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has displaced more than 12 million Ukrainians, 5.8 million of whom have left for surrounding countries in Europe, according to the United Nations. An estimated 15,000 Ukrainians have arrived in the United States in the past three months, mostly by crossing the border at Mexico, The Washington Post reported 

On March 24, one month after the war began, the Biden administration promised to accept 100,000 Ukrainian refugees. Austin is already home to around 12,000 refugees, mostly from Bosnia, Burma, Cuba, Sudan and Vietnam. 

The U.N. Refugee Agency defines a refugee as “someone who has been forced to flee their country because of persecution, war or violence. A refugee has a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group.”  

While Maliushytska and the Burlakas were making the long journey from Ukraine to the U.S., the Biden administration on April 21 announced a program to grant Ukrainians humanitarian parole. Humanitarian parole offers refugees legal status to stay in the U.S. for two years as long as they have a U.S.-based sponsor. Sponsors may be private citizens, churches or civic groups who apply to the Department of Homeland Security on behalf of Ukrainian citizens. 

Different from refugee status, which offers a pathway to permanent residency and eventually citizenship, “humanitarian parole is indefinite and completely at the discretion of the U.S. government without a direct pathway to permanent status,” said Justin Estep, director of immigration legal services at Catholic Charities. 

Refugees are also offered resettlement aid, job training and English classes, while parolees do not receive those benefits or protection, The Washington Post reported. 

Under the new sponsorship program, Ukrainians with humanitarian parole status are ineligible to receive social services from groups like Refugee Services of Texas, the largest resettlement agency in the state. “Our population of refugees is defined by the U.S. Refugee Admissions Act,” said Chris Kelley, a spokesperson for Refugee Services of Texas. 

Social service agencies see the shifting approaches to the Ukrainian crisis as the latest example of a U.S. immigration system in need of reform.

“We have let our immigration system slowly fall apart due to political inaction because no one wants to challenge the status quo,” Estep said. “It’s made our ability to help people in these situations extremely difficult.” 

Estep isn’t convinced the current infrastructure can handle the new sponsorship program. “Where are the people who will process the applications and petitions coming from?” he said. 

In a statement, Krish O’Mara Vignarajah, president and CEO of Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, called the new sponsorship program a step in the right direction to upholding the Biden administration’s promise to accept 100,000 Ukrainian refugees. But she criticized making sponsors assume financial responsibility for Ukrainian citizens, the lack of safety net and lasting protection and the “unequal access to protection for other at-risk populations.”

We are disappointed to see the administration outsource its moral obligation to support newly arrived Ukrainians,” Vignarajah wrote. 

“Exemptions to the Title 42 expulsion policy for Ukrainians presenting at the U.S. border underscore the absence of such leniency for predominantly Black and brown asylum seekers fleeing nearly identical violence and persecution,” she added.

Title 42 is the controversial policy put in place by the Trump administration in March 2020, which gives U.S. health officials the power to deny migrants entry into the U.S. in the event of a public health crisis like the coronavirus pandemic. The policy remains in place despite the current administration’s efforts to end it. 

In the absence of a more robust immigration system, American citizens such as Warnken are hosting refugees, assuming financial responsibility and assisting with the resettlement process. Maliushytska and the Burlakas know they won’t receive any financial assistance from the U.S. government. 

A stronger European social safety net is one reason many Ukrainian refugees immigrate to neighboring countries rather than cross the ocean. Collecting the right papers to get a work visa in Europe is challenging, however, and the vast majority fleeing Ukraine want the opportunity to be part of the workforce where they resettle. 

Warnken says she has spoken to more than 20 volunteers and refugees who are upset about delays in the system to obtain work permits in the U.S. Processing a work permit usually takes up to three months but is delayed 6-12 months because of administrative backlogs. Admitted Ukrainians are eligible for work authorization under the new sponsorship program, but they cannot legally work in the U.S. until they receive a work permit. 

Still, Ukrainian men are trying to find jobs as unskilled laborers while women are seeking jobs babysitting and cleaning. “A lot of them come with college degrees and can offer something better,” Warnken said. 

Warnken’s own 8-year-old daughter is excited to meet Anfisa and go to the same school, Mills Elementary. Warnken told her two daughters, “We have to do this because you never know, someday we could be in that same situation. We have to help our fellow humans.”