Actually, the US government is doing almost nothing to help Ukrainian refugees

Alex Jean
6 min readApr 11, 2022


The red tape is the point.

Last week, members of the US Congress wrote a letter to themselves, asking themselves to cut back on the red tape of the US refugee system that they, themselves, created. Apparently still shocked by the byzantine system of fees, applications, processing times, pointless health procedures and background checks, Congress seems to have again forgotten that it largely created this system precisely to make it more difficult for refugees to come to the United States. News flash: the red tape is the point. Just ask anyone who has tried to get to the US from Afghanistan.

You may ask yourself if the US even needs to do more to help Ukrainian refugees. After all, the news has been full of heartwarming stories about how much the United States cares about Ukrainian refugees and how much we are supposedly doing to help them. Before we all finish patting ourselves on the back, however, I would like to point out that we are only doing slightly more than bupkus. So far, our “humanitarian response” is looking a lot like it always does: a bunch of press releases full of good intentions that are no match for decades of voluminous red tape, apathy and, of course, the legacy of the Trump administration.

100,000 would have been a large number of refugees in the Middle Ages

The news has been full of the fact that the Biden administration pledged to accept 100,000 refugees, which sounds like a lot until you remember that over 4 million people have already fled Ukraine to neighbouring countries and the population of the US is over 300 million. The last time 100,000 was a large number of refugees was probably during the Middle Ages, when the entire population of London was 15,000 people. How did the Biden administration pick this number? For some reason, the US is really attached to the number 100,000 and keeps using it as a rough midpoint for refugees around which to circle over and over again. It doesn’t matter how many refugees there are, or how “strategic” a country is, or even the extent to which the conflict is our fault (see: Vietnam; Afghanistan). The number 100,000 holds sway over all other considerations. It provided a frame of reference in 1985 and it continues to do so today. The US could easily take in ten times that many people, but it will not.

Resettlement — the place where hope goes to die

How will these 100,000 Ukrainians get into the US? Will we airlift them out of Ukraine? HA HA HA, NOT A CHANCE! There are actually several ways they could come, each more complex, time consuming and unfair than the last.

Some will likely come via the official refugee resettlement program, where UN and other partners select tiny numbers of “vulnerable” refugees to go to the US. Most Ukrainians won’t be eligible, though, because they aren’t “vulnerable,” meaning that they can get medical care in Poland or Romania and their lives are not in danger there. At the end of the day, the number of refugees resettled through this official program will likely have more to do with the amount of pressure brought to bear by the governments of refugee-hosting allies like Poland, and less to do with the actual needs of refugees.

It’s highly unlikely that100,000 refugees will enter the US this way, or even close to 100,000. In fact, the US likely won’t meet even a fraction of its resettlement pledges, from Ukraine or anywhere else, without major changes to a system that was designed to be slow. Refugee resettlement takes years on purpose. So any calls for the US to increase its resettlement of Ukrainian refugees may be impossible due to deliberate “capacity issues,” which means that the system can’t be easily scaled up without streamlining the onerous vetting process, which was created expressly to be the opposite of streamlined. The system is reliant not only on a small number of overworked UN and State Department staff, but also on a host of under-funded charities in the US that do the actual resettling.

Temporary Protected Status (TPS) — Not the fun kind of limbo

Ukrainians already inside the US can now benefit from TPS, which means they cannot be deported to Ukraine for at least 18 months. Really, TPS shouldn’t even be included in this article because it does not apply to new arrivals. Still, it is a way for the Biden administration to claim that they have helped 100,000 refugees, depending on how many Ukrainians inside of the US end up needing TPS. TPS holders can work in the US, but it’s really better thought of as a temporary solution while the person scrambles around, hiring lawyers and trying to qualify for some other form of immigration relief. I am assuming the US government will keep extending TPS for the next few years, at least, since this is what they have done for past humanitarian disasters, but never assume. A new administration could end it at any time. You know, if there was, like, a US presidential administration that didn’t really like Ukraine, for some reason…

As the NYC website explains, it’s normal to feel “anxious and stressed” while you wait to see if your limbo will be extended, or abruptly ended with almost no warning.

Humanitarian Parole at the Mexico border — Get ready to spend all your money on plane tickets and lawyers

The Biden administration just announced that humanitarian parole will be available to Ukrainian refugees coming to the US by air, in a program that is likely similar to the one created for Afghan refugees. The experiences of Afghan refugees trying to get to the US, however, have not been encouraging. To access this program, there is likely to be long wait times and a lot of red tape, though it is supposed to be a work around for the glacial resettlement program.

Many Ukrainian refugees are arriving via the Mexico border. Until the end of May, the only way to claim asylum in the US has been to show up at the US border and wait, because Trump-era laws illegally prohibit people from entering the US to claim asylum. There are reports in the media, however, that approximately 3,000 Ukrainians without visas, assisted by a volunteer army of church groups and immigrant non-profits, have been allowed to enter the US on a case-by-case basis and are being granted humanitarian parole, which allows them to remain in the US for one year. So far, almost 10,000 Ukrainians have been “processed” at the border and it is likely more will be admitted in this way. But humanitarian parole is also a temporary status, not a permanent solution.

Long-term “solutions”

If TPS and humanitarian parole are only temporary, what can Ukrainian refugees do in order to stay in the US long-term? Once inside the US, Ukrainians can claim asylum and withholding from removal under the asylum system, or pursue other options to adjust their status, such as through a US citizen relative or spouse. It is quite possible, however, that some of them will not qualify for a long-term solution. The waiting list for family visas is long and the process can take ten years. Believe it or not, but fleeing a war is not necessarily enough to qualify for asylum in the US. Ukrainians whose humanitarian parole or TPS status expires, and who have not found a solution, may find themselves in deportation proceedings. This is the harsh reality of the US immigration system, a reality that most Americans simply do not know.

Perceptions and reality

Most Americans are pro-Ukraine and support admitting Ukrainian refugees, but the truth is that support for hypothetical refugee arrivals does not translate into actual refugee arrivals. It only translates into endless think-pieces in the media. If only there was some way to transform the number of words written about Ukrainian refugees, including the ones in this article, into visas, then maybe we would see what a real refugee and asylum system in the world’s richest country should look like.