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Uncertainty, costs hamper would-be refugee sponsors

Experts say it’s easier for groups than individuals to support migrants from Ukraine

Volunteers with Calvary San Diego welcome Ukrainian refugees on April 1. Associated Press/Photo by Gregory Bull

Uncertainty, costs hamper would-be refugee sponsors

Anton Savenko received an unexpected video call on Facebook from his mom, Viktoriia, in Ukraine. He had just read the news of the Russian invasion. He was scared. They always scheduled their calls.

It was Feb. 24, the day Russia invaded Ukraine. Viktoriia woke at 5 a.m. to ground-shaking explosions. The Russians had bombed a Ukrainian air base in Myrhorod right next to the apartment building where she lived on the eighth floor. She put a jacket over her pajamas, grabbed her passport, and ran outside. She couldn’t go home.

Savenko, 27, had moved to Austin, Texas, to work in the film and music industry. Now, he is working on getting his green card. On March 20—the last day of the Austin music festival South by Southwest—Savenko and a friend orchestrated a fundraiser where they showed Ukrainian films and read Ukrainian poetry. Ukrainians overseas joined the livestreamed event. 

Savenko’s whole family is in Ukraine. For over two months Viktoriia, 52, has been living out of a suitcase, first at her mother’s home and then at a friend’s house. Sometimes Savenko goes several days without hearing from her when she can’t access wireless service. Savenko wants to get her to the United States. Thanks to a new sponsorship program, Viktoriia, 52, now has a pathway.

On April 21, President Joe Biden announced Uniting for Ukraine, a program that allows Ukrainians to come to the United States for two years on humanitarian parole if a permanent resident, citizen, or organization such as a church applies to sponsor them. But potential sponsors must navigate a complicated process that may limit those who can apply, and the Ukrainians still face a life of uncertainty on parole.

Between Feb. 1 and April 6, nearly 10,000 Ukrainians crossed the U.S. southern border from Mexico. They received permission to enter the country on humanitarian parole for one year because of a memo issued by U.S. Customs and Border Protection that practically exempted Ukrainians from the pandemic no-entry policy, Title 42.

The Uniting for Ukraine program stops the flow of Ukrainian migrants at the southern border. As of April 25, Ukrainians are no longer exempt from Title 42 and must apply with a sponsor to enter the country. It’s unclear what happens to the Ukrainians already gathered at ports of entry such as Tijuana, Mexico, where some were told they could not cross. About 500 Ukrainians are sheltering from the sun under large tents in a camp in Mexico City.

Though Ukrainians now have a direct route to the United States, connecting them with sponsors isn’t that simple. Under the new program, individuals and organizations must select the person or family in need of a sponsor, but many people and churches don’t have contact with individual refugees. Groups such as World Relief are working to make these connections, said Matthew Soerens, World Relief’s director of church mobilization.

Other potential sponsors are hitting roadblocks with the application. Because Savenko is in the process of getting his green card, he can’t sponsor his mom, so one of his friends volunteered. But she quickly ran into problems. The first step: Go to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services web portal for the program and file an I-134 form to demonstrate that the sponsor can financially support the sponsored Ukrainians. The friend’s progress came to a halt when she reached the income and employment requirements: She didn’t make the amount required above the poverty line for a household of her size, and her freelance employment didn’t count.

Chris Kobitz faced similar challenges. He is trying to help Maskym Nahorodniuk, his wife, and three children—9, 5, and 2½ years old—who fled Kyiv for Poland. Kobitz has room for the family in his three-bedroom, three-bathroom house in Del Valle, Texas, but he worries his pension as a retired police officer wouldn’t be enough to cover the cost of healthcare and other expenses. He told the Nahorodniuks they are welcome to stay if they find another sponsor.

Migrants arrive with a host of needs—schooling, healthcare, housing, and more—and one individual might not be prepared to handle them all. Kit Taintor is vice president of policy for Welcome.US, a nonprofit initiative dedicated to mobilizing 100,000 Americans to sponsor Ukrainians and giving them the tools to do so.

“Sponsorship is best done in groups,” Taintor said. Welcome.US provides potential sponsors with explainers about the complicated application process, information about what government benefits Ukrainians may be eligible for, and connections to local service organizations.

The goal is to “wrap our arms around those places where we know people are going to have needs,” she said. “We have an opportunity to stand up and play our part as local citizens.”

Though the Biden administration said it would expedite the process, no one is sure how long it will take to get an application approved. After proving financial ability, a sponsor is vetted to protect against the abuse of migrants. If their sponsor is approved, the Ukrainians listed on the application must verify personal information, prove vaccination for measles, polio, and COVID-19, and go through their own vetting process before receiving final approval.

Ukrainians welcomed through Uniting for Ukraine face the same problem as Afghan parolees: no access to permanent status. Many Ukrainians may hope to return to their home country, but we “have to be realistic,” Soerens said. Rebuilding takes time.

Addie Offereins

Addie is a WORLD reporter who often writes about poverty fighting and immigration. She is a graduate of Westmont College and the World Journalism Institute. She lives in Austin, Texas, with her husband, Ben.

You sure do come up with exciting stuff to read, know, and talk about. —Chad

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