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Exclusive | Inside the Ukrainian Refugee Crisis at the U.S. Border


On April 21, the Biden administration announced that Ukrainian refugees entering the U.S. will be fast-tracked under a new operation titled “Uniting for Ukraine.” The plan — which went into effect on April 25 — allows U.S.-based individuals and entities to apply with DHS to temporarily sponsor Ukrainian citizens. Some conditions required U.S. sponsors to include that they must know the names of Ukrainian citizens before sponsoring, declare financial support, pass a background check, and be fully vaccinated against COVID among other public health requirements. As of now, there is no limit on how many Ukrainians a person (or entity) can sponsor.

Ukrainians seeking sponsorship will also have to meet criteria such as being a resident of a war-torn country since February 11, 2022, being fully vaccinated, undergoing a background check, biometric screening, and additional security checks according to DHS. Once approved, candidates will be granted parole and work authorization for up to 2 years. Officials anticipate a short-term length of stay and the program will not provide a pathway to permanent residency or citizenship.

Watch exclusive images of the border crisis by El American’s contributor Erik Herrera

Public Benefits and Green Cards for Ukrainian Refugees?

This comes after President Biden announced in mid-March that the United States would accept 100,000 Ukrainian refugees. San Diego County Board of Supervisors Chair Nathan Fletcher stated after Biden’s announcement, San Diego County would be joining other major metropolitan areas in welcoming asylum seekers. San Diego County will provide an array of services to Ukrainian refugees amid Russia’s invasion. Services available to refugees may include reception and placement services, health screenings, public benefits such as refugee cash assistance and Medicaid; employment services and vocational ESL (English as a Second Language) among other services.

Refugee advocates have expressed concerns about the requirement that sponsors assume financial responsibility and are also calling on the Biden administration to provide Ukrainians with more permanent status. Once the program goes into effect, Ukrainians presenting at the U.S.-Mexico border will be denied entry into the U.S., although the Biden administration said that it is working with NGOs and nonprofits to help Ukrainians without U.S. sponsors. Goldman Sachs has provided $3.6 million and partnered with Welcome.US to help mobilize 100,000 Americans to sponsor Ukrainians and temporarily house them through Airbnb, donate airline miles through Miles4migrants to help Ukrainians fleeing war secure a free flight to their destination, and donate to their “Welcome Fund” through GoFundMe where currently over $840,000 of the $1,000,000 goal have been raised.

Undocumented Immigrants from Ukraine at the Southern Border

In March, U.S. border patrol agents detained more than 5,000 Ukrainian migrants at the nation’s borders with a considerable increase in Ukrainians seeking asylum at the U.S.-Mexico border adding to the record influx of migrations from Latin America and the Caribbean in 2022, according to CBP.

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Jewish Family Service was one of several religious charities at the San Ysidro PedWest port of entry aiding Ukrainian refugees but had been accused of detaining refugees against their will for 3 days of quarantine. A volunteer with Jewish Family Service said that a politician from Texas traveled to their hotel serving-as-shelter in an attempt to expose the alleged inhumane treatment of Ukrainian refugees. The volunteer stated that Jewish Family Service does not force anyone to quarantine if they choose not to, but, that refugees wishing to receive their services must quarantine before being released.

Calvary San Diego was one of the more substantial volunteer efforts at PedWest providing shelter to Ukrainians. A representative of Calvary Church stated via phone call that they had ceased hosting refugees at their specific location halfway through April and were instead relocating them across numerous church campuses in San Diego. An estimate of Ukrainians in San Diego was not provided, but the church representative stated that close-to 1,000 people were crossing per day since the state of California began taking in refugees. On March 2nd, North Coastal Calvary Chapel made a post to their Instagram feed about how the church’s partners have helped set up 119 care centers where more than 12,000 refugees were being cared for at $80,000 per day.

Ongoing Efforts to Aid Ukrainian Refugees

Calvary San Diego set up a webpage (calvarysd.com/duplicate) where potential volunteers learn how to aid the church’s efforts to help refugees coming through the Mexican border. The website shares a list of organizers that are helping provide Russian and Ukrainian translators both stateside and in Mexico, transportation from San Ysidro to Calvary San Diego where refugees can then be transported to San Diego airport or host homes, and transportation from the Tijuana airport to U.S.-Mexico border crossings. The website also has opportunities for volunteers to work in “the hub” where they can assist in welcoming and dispensing donations to refugees, and; an application process for San Diego residents to host Ukrainian refugees for 1-2 days.

President Biden announced goals for refugee resettlement before with an admission ceiling of 125,00 for this fiscal year, but his administration has yet to meet its target. According to State Department data, halfway through this fiscal year; they have only resettled 8,758 refugees.

Erik Herrera is a photojournalist from San Diego, California.