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Hear from refugees arriving in Romania after Russian invasion
03:42 - Source: CNN
Washington CNN  — 

The Biden administration is considering expediting the resettlement of Ukrainian refugees with US ties, including family already living here, according to a US official. This comes amid growing calls from advocates to do more for the millions of people fleeing war-torn Ukraine.

President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris have repeatedly committed to welcoming Ukrainian refugees to the US, but the reality for those trying to reconnect with family in the US is different given the limited ways Ukrainians can legally come to the country.

Nearly 3 million people have already fled Ukraine into neighboring countries, according to the United Nations’ refugee agency. While most Ukrainian refugees are likely to stay in Europe, there are those who want to come to the US where they have family. There are more than 1 million people of Ukrainian ancestry in the US, according to 2019 census estimates.

But the options for Ukrainian refugees looking to come to the US are limited. The US refugee resettlement process, for example, can take years to complete, prompting a push from advocates to expedite the process for people who already have relatives in the US and could more easily settle down where those family members are located.

“We have advocated for the State Department and (United States Citizenship and Immigration Services) to use any means at its discretion to expedite the reunification of Ukrainian refugees with family here. We’re heartened by indications that the administration is exploring at least a couple options,” said Krish O’Mara Vignarajah, president and CEO of Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service.

A State Department spokesperson said the US is working with European allies and partners, along with international organizations, to support people displaced by the war.

“If there are Ukrainians who are not able to remain safely and for whom resettlement in the United States is a better option, we will work with (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) and the EU to consider them. That is not a quick process, and so we will be looking at other options and what more we can do,” the spokesperson said in a statement last Thursday, noting that the US expects Ukrainians will want to stay in neighboring countries or in the European Union.

Among those calling for federal action is New York Democratic Rep. Tom Suozzi, who on Monday urged the Biden administration to make an exception for Ukrainians who are trying to come to the US on a tourist visa to connect with family – one of the other methods of entry for Ukrainians.

To obtain a tourist visa, Ukrainians must apply, get an appointment at a US consulate, and prove that they’re coming to the US for a short period of time – a requirement set in law. That’s kept some Ukrainians from being able to travel to the US given the uncertain circumstances in their country, including the relatives of a family who joined Suozzi on Monday.

“This is a terrible quirk in the law that many people, thousands of people, probably tens of thousands of people, are caught up in right now,” he said during a news conference.

Suozzi said his office is working with two families who have run into issues obtaining tourist visas, including a family who joined him on Monday.

“To go through the motions of having my sister being there on her own, bouncing from country to country in Europe without having a house to stay, without having the support of her family, without having a real stable roof, it’s really devastating,” said Jenya Semekova, whose sister and brother-in-law fled Ukraine and are currently in Italy.

Suozzi, who said he’s been in touch with the administration on the issue, said Monday that “these are family members trying to help other family members, but because the law is such that you have to show you have a place to go home to, they can’t demonstrate that because they don’t know what’s going to happen to their home.”

Marina Shepelsky, an immigration attorney who works with Ukrainian clients, told CNN some people had success in getting a tourist visa, but the demand has been a challenge.

“It’s very difficult. It’s always been difficult to get a tourist visa period but now there’s so many people applying, they really have to pick and choose,” Shepelsky said.

Immigration attorneys and advocates have also called on the administration to extend humanitarian parole to Ukrainians as officials did for Afghan evacuees last year, allowing them to come to the US without visas.

The Biden administration has already taken some steps to extend relief to Ukrainian refugees amid the crisis, including by moving earlier this month to allow Ukrainians who are in the US to remain in the country under a form of humanitarian relief.

The relief, known as Temporary Protected Status, applies to people who would face extreme hardship if forced to return to homelands devastated by armed conflict or natural disasters. Therefore, the protections are limited to people already in the US. The DHS secretary has discretion to designate a country for TPS.

CNN reported earlier this month that about 75,100 people are estimated to be eligible to file applications for TPS under the designation of Ukraine, according to a DHS spokesperson, which is more than double previous estimates. Individuals must have continuously resided in the US since March 1 to be eligible, and the TPS designation will be in place for 18 months.