Michael Atkinson and his wife have no ties to Ukraine, Russia or Eastern Europe. They’ve never even visited the region.
But they do have a finished basement apartment in their home in Herriman that a Ukrainian mother and her three children will call home in the coming weeks.
The Atkinsons are among 19,000 others living in the U.S. that have applied to sponsor a Ukrainian family under the Biden administration’s Uniting for Ukraine program, which entered its third week on Monday. The Department of Homeland Security announced over 6,000 people have been approved and made travel arrangements, and the first wave of people admitted under the program are starting to trickle in.
Biden says the U.S. is willing to admit at least 100,000 Ukrainians fleeing Russia’s invasion.
But the administration is taking a new approach to resettlement with Ukrainians, relying on the goodwill of people already legally in the U.S. It’s sponsors — not the government — who will be on the hook for coordinating resettlement and financially supporting Ukrainian refugees.
It’s the largest sponsor-based resettlement program in U.S. history, designed to streamline the process for Ukrainians with friends and family in the U.S. But there’s nothing stopping strangers from sponsoring strangers, the approach taken by people like the Atkinsons.
The family has been slowly stepping out of its comfort zone, hosting family friends from France one year, then foreign exchange students the next.
“We got ourself acclimated to where we said, ‘We can do this,’” said Atkinson. “It’s going to be OK, it’s going to be cool and a little crazy. And that’s fine.”
How the program works
Anyone residing legally in the U.S. can apply to be a financial sponsor for Ukrainian refugees, including other immigrants and green card holders. The application can be found on the Department of Homeland Security’s portal.
- The first step is to find an eligible Ukrainian family. That includes families who fled the country after Feb. 11 or anyone still in Ukraine.
- Next, sponsors fill out an I-134 form, declaring their own income as well as the income of the refugee families they are advocating for.
- Sponsors will then be vetted, and may be required to interview or provide supplementary evidence for their I-134 form.
- Once approved, Ukrainian families will be directed to confirm personal information, provide proof of vaccination for measles, polio and COVID-19, pass background checks and medical screening.
- If they pass, Ukrainians are responsible for their own travel arrangements that will put them in the U.S. within 90 days. They will be granted humanitarian parole, which lasts for two years and creates a pathway to work authorization.
It’s what some experts, like Aden Batar, director of migration and refugee services at Catholic Community Services Salt Lake office, call a tradeoff.
Ukrainians who need an immediate pathway to the U.S. now have one. But humanitarian parolees are not eligible for social programs like food stamps or Medicaid — refugees that come through traditional resettlement pathways are. They also won’t receive the same level of support from resettlement agencies like the International Rescue Committee, or Catholic Community Services.
“It’s going to be hard for someone who lost everything they had, and witnessed all this horrible war trauma and now they’re coming and they will not be eligible (for social programs),” said Batar. “They’re going to need the resettlement agencies’ support so that’s why we’re asking the federal government and Congress to appropriate resources.”
For now, the program is financially dependent on the sponsors, who in their I-134 form need to prove they can provide housing or cash assistance if needed. Batar says Congress could allocate funding so the parolees are eligible for the same benefits available to people with refugee status.
Uniting for Ukraine received 14,500 applicants in the first 10 days, according to The Wall Street Journal, overlapping with many of the 20,000 Ukrainians that attempted to enter the U.S. along the Mexican border.
‘I don’t think it would be possible without social media’
On Tuesday, Melanie Williamson of Salt Lake City spent the afternoon applying to sponsor a family currently living in a refugee camp in Mexico City, who flew there to claim asylum or humanitarian parole, but are now falling back on Uniting for Ukraine.
Williamson reached out to the family via Facebook.
The social media platform is a hub for sponsors connecting with refugees, with Facebook pages like North America for Ukraine ballooning to thousands of members, from Ukraine, the U.S. and Canada, looking to match with each other.
“I don’t think it would be possible without social media,” said Williamson.
Like the Atkinsons, Williamson had no prior ties to Ukraine. But when the war broke out in February, she felt compelled to donate money to aid groups. Then she joined several Facebook groups, and eventually found herself reaching out to strangers thousands of miles away, asking if they needed a sponsor.
“If I had room in my house, I would let people in,” she said, noting that the family won’t be living with her — they’re instead eyeing Austin, Texas.
“But there’s still something really rewarding about helping someone, one on one. I am just one person but I impacted one person,” she said.
Ukrainians cannot apply for humanitarian parole through the program, and instead need to find a sponsor to apply on their behalf. Often refugees will submit what Williamson and other sponsors likened to an online dating profile, describing in detail their journey out of Ukraine and their hobbies, interests and even religious and political views.
“It’s kind of like dating,” Michael Atkinson said. “You can determine a lot about the people who are applying based on their posts.”
Prospective sponsors also create what looks like a rental listing.
“People would post on here saying, ‘I have a home in upstate New York out in the country and I’m looking to host a family.’ And they’ll get all these replies from Ukrainians saying ‘pick me, pick me,’” Atkinson said.
Combing through several Facebook pages, they would see posts from Ukrainian families asking for a sponsor. It wasn’t an easy process — often the people wouldn’t reply, or they realized the family doesn’t need physical housing. But eventually they opened a dialogue with a young mother currently living in Turkey with her three children. In a few weeks, they’ll be landing in Salt Lake City.
Nongovernmental organizations and nonprofits are helping match people in the U.S. with Ukrainians, like Welcome US which will notify sponsors when there are refugees in need. Prospective sponsors have also taken to the community app NextDoor to coordinate.
A future model for resettlement?
Immigration experts say Uniting for Ukraine could be a model for future resettlement efforts.
“There’s always been this conversation about community sponsorship related to refugees — why don’t we have this? How would this work? And towards the end of the Obama years, there was this model,” said Asha Parekh, director of the Utah Office of Refugee Services.
Parekh has mixed feelings on the program. Resettlement is a lengthy process, and getting approved to come to the U.S. is the first step in a yearslong journey that includes finding long-term housing, a career, health care, learning English, child care, education and more.
Some of the guidance that resettlement agencies typically provide won’t be available to Ukrainians with humanitarian parole status. But she says it’s inspiring to see the outpouring of support in a system that has so far proven to be effective.
“This is the first time that (U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services) has an application online. And they’ve already approved 6,000 applications, that is remarkable. On the one hand, yes, there are gaps in what they’re doing. On the other hand, they’re doing things they’ve never done before,” she said.
What to expect as more Ukrainians flee war
With the program hinging entirely on sponsors, experts say it’s unlikely the U.S. will resettle 100,000 refugees through Uniting for Ukraine alone.
“I think it’s going to be really impossible for that number to be filled with sponsorships,” said Batar, with Catholic Community Services.
Batar thinks that more people will likely enter the U.S. by way of asylum or the traditional refugee pathway, which can take years.
“I think there’s still some people that are going to benefit from this, those that have relatives or friends (in the U.S.),” he said. “... But a larger number of the people are still stranded, either in Ukraine or neighboring countries, and don’t have any relatives or people to find a sponsorship for them.”
In February, March and April, fewer than 550 Ukrainians were admitted to 25 U.S. states via the country’s refugee resettlement process. Washington state admitted 164, the most in the U.S. — none were resettled in Utah, according to data from the Refugee Processing Center.
The Department of Homeland Security still doesn’t know how many Ukrainians will be resettled through the refugee program. Utah probably won’t see anyone until October, says Parekh.
At least 87% of Beehive State voters support resettling Ukrainian refugees, according to a Deseret News/Hinckley Institute of Politics poll.
Even with the traditional resettlement process, experts say most refugees will opt to stay in neighboring countries — like Poland, Romania or Hungary, which have collectively admitted over 4.5 million Ukrainians — rather than move to the U.S.
“The majority of people prefer to stay close to home. Because at the end of the day, their final goal is to get back home when the situation allows,” said Olga Sarrado, spokesperson for the U.N. Refugee Agency.