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The Biden administration announced Monday it will allow many Ukrainians who entered the U.S. at the southern border to remain in the country for an additional year under a program known as humanitarian parole.
"As Russia's unprovoked invasion of Ukraine and the unprecedented humanitarian crisis it has caused continue, [the Department of Homeland Security] assesses that there remain urgent humanitarian reasons, as well as a significant public benefit, for extending the parole of certain Ukrainians and family members on a case-by-case basis," a DHS spokesperson told VOA via email.
Humanitarian parole is a temporary immigration status that may be granted to individuals who are otherwise inadmissible to the United States. Individuals may qualify based on circumstances such as a medical emergency or a humanitarian crisis. DHS estimates it will take approximately four weeks to decide to review and decide Ukrainian refugees qualify for the parole extension.
When Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022, it triggered an exodus of people from the country on a scale not seen since World War II. Though most Ukrainians sought refuge in other countries in Europe, some opted to attempt to reach the U.S.
While some Ukrainians had U.S. visas allowing them to enter without delay, many of the more than 20,000 Ukrainians who traveled to the U.S.-Mexico border to request asylum lacked a visa.
The DHS said the parole period for those deemed eligible will be extended from the current expiration date without a gap.
"Those who have their period of parole extended will also have their period of employment authorization extended for a commensurate period of time," a DHS spokesperson wrote.
Krish O'Mara Vignarajah, president and CEO of Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, said in a statement that this process will "provide critical relief to thousands of Ukrainians who have been facing tremendous anxiety and uncertainty about their future here."
That anxiety is well-known to Oksana Stakhnevych, a Ukrainian refugee and mother of three children, who are now living in Richmond, Virginia. She arrived in the U.S. with her husband and children last April.
"Nobody who crossed the border from Mexico really knows what to do next," she told VOA.
Stakhnevych was hopeful the U.S. government would announce an initiative to renew her status since going back to Ukraine is not an option now.
"In general, we want to come back to Ukraine when the war is finished, but now we can't come back to Ukraine. And I don't know if we should [leave] America," she said.
Stakhnevych described the moment in February 2022 when she told her husband they had to leave Ukraine. Stakhnevych, who was pregnant at the time, and her family were living in Kyiv when the war began.
"Everything stopped. We had to take out the kids, take our documents, and little clothes, and get out of the house. I was asleep and I heard the first one [explosion]. I did not understand. Was it exactly a bomb? It's an unusual noise. But then I see [the] sky. In one second [it was] like day and then night again. And I understand it's a bomb. I [woke up] my husband and say we should take our kids," she told VOA.
Stakhnevych and her children journeyed to Tijuana, Mexico, and from there, crossed into California. They were paroled for a year. Meanwhile, her husband, who had a U.S. tourist visa, entered the U.S. from another port of entry.
Ukrainians like Stakhnevych who presented themselves at the U.S.-Mexico border have been exempted from an executive order, called Title 42, which has allowed U.S. immigration officials to quickly expel migrants to their country of origin or Mexican border towns, denying them a chance at asylum.
In Ukraine, Stakhnevych volunteered at a Jewish community organization. Through contacts from her work, she was put in touch with the Jewish Community Federation of Richmond and Jewish Family Services in Virginia.
These organizations resettled Stakhnevych and her family. They are also part of a larger network made of 18 Jewish nonprofits across the United States that have received a Ukrainian Resettlement grant from the Jewish Federations of North America initiative to support local communities assisting refugees in the country.
Vignarajah and other advocates have also called on the government to not wait until a critical point to make decisions on humanitarian protections and urged officials to announce remedies for the more than 70,000 Afghan evacuees paroled into the U.S.
Afghans under humanitarian parole have their protections set to expire as soon as July.
"The administration's broader use of parole must be accompanied by a thoughtful plan for how and when temporary protections will be extended, and how beneficiaries can access pathways to longer-term status," Vignarajah wrote.
Stakhnevych said her family is awaiting instructions from the U.S. government on what to do next apply for a parole extension, but in the meantime said her children are adapting to the U.S., where they have made friends. She is now caring for a baby girl born in the United States.
"Her middle name is Virginia. Just like the place she was born," Stakhnevych said.