For People Fleeing War, U.S. Immigration Fight Has Real-Life Consequences

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Artem Marchuk needed to escape Ukraine or die. He didn’t see any other options.

He and his wife and children had been living in Bakhmut, the site of the war’s deadliest battle. Even when they made it out of the city, nothing in Ukraine felt safe.

“My kids were very hungry,” Artem’s wife, Yana, said in an interview from the family’s home in Baltimore, where the U.S. government resettled them in 2022. “There was darkness everywhere.”

The Marchuks are among more than a million people whom the Biden administration has allowed into the United States over the past three years under an authority called humanitarian parole, which allows people without visas to live and work in the United States temporarily. Parole has been extended to Ukrainians, Afghans and thousands of people south of the U.S.-Mexico border fleeing poverty and war.

Now the program is at the heart of a battle in Congress over legislation that would unlock billions of dollars in military aid for some of President Biden’s top foreign policy priorities, such as Ukraine and Israel.

Republicans want to see a severe crackdown on immigration in exchange for their votes to approve the military aid — and restricting the number of people granted parole is one of their demands.

For Mr. Marchuk, the fact that a program that saved his family has become a bargaining chip on Capitol Hill feels wrong. Although the latest version of the deal would mostly spare Ukrainians seeking parole, he feels a deep sense of solidarity with other people — regardless of their nationality — who may be left behind if Congress imposes limits on the program.

Americans, he said, should welcome people like his family. Mr. Marchuk, a former technology executive in Ukraine, said he has found work helping other refugees with the advocacy organization Global Refuge, as well as driving for DoorDash, UPS and Amazon since he arrived in Baltimore.

“Refugees deliver these packages,” said Mr. Marchuk, 36. “American citizens who have an education,” he said, very often don’t want to work as drivers.

Humanitarian parole has existed since the 1950s to help vulnerable people fleeing failing states and conflict, but Mr. Biden has used it more than his predecessors, immigration experts say. By law, the United States may grant parole if there are “urgent humanitarian” needs or a “significant public benefit” for doing so.

People who want to enter the country under parole must first have a sponsor in the United States and then undergo vetting by U.S. immigration authorities.

There are important differences between parole and the U.S. refugee program, which is the more typical path for people seeking sanctuary in the United States.

People who have parole status are not put on a pathway to a green card, or permanent residency, as refugees are. Instead, they are allowed to stay only for a limited time, usually about two years, though the administration can extend it.

Once the status expires, people must leave the United States, apply for another immigration program or take the risk of staying in the country illegally.

The Biden administration has made parole a key part of its immigration policy, using it to help those from Ukraine and Afghanistan, as well as people from Haiti, Venezuela, Cuba and Nicaragua, whose economies have all but collapsed.

More than 176,000 Ukrainians and 77,000 Afghans have come to the United States under the program. And last year, the Biden administration began granting parole to 30,000 migrants a month from Cuba, Haiti, Nicaragua and Venezuela who have financial sponsors in the United States. The White House argued that its strategy was designed to discourage migrants from crossing the border illegally by creating a more orderly, legal pathway.

Republicans have sought to limit nearly all of those programs, saying Mr. Biden is taking advantage of an authority that is supposed to be used in only extraordinary circumstances.

“They’ve abused the hell out of the statute,” Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina, said this month. “I have zero confidence that we would have achieved much if we don’t limit the use of parole.”

Some Republicans say parole often amounts to a loophole that fuels illegal immigration. They want to crack down on a practice known as “catch and release,” in which migrants are briefly detained when they arrive in the United States but are then quickly granted parole and released to await immigration court hearings.

The particulars of the deal in Congress are still being negotiated. A deal that is being discussed in the Senate seeks to reduce parole numbers by tightening immigration enforcement at the southern border.

That would not have a direct impact on the route that many Ukrainians took to America, since they generally do not arrive by the southern border. (Some Ukrainians do make it to the United States that way, however.)

But there is still deep uncertainty about whether the program will survive without changes.

Even some congressional Democrats who oppose substantially changing the parole program have acknowledged they may need to give in to some Republican demands to limit the program if they have any chance of passing the military aid package.

Republicans in the House, including Speaker Mike Johnson, have threatened to block any deal that does not impose a hard cap on the number of migrants who can receive parole, as well as the elimination of group-based parole, like the program for Ukrainians that the Marchuks used to get into the United States.

Keeping close tabs on the negotiations in Congress, Mr. Marchuk said he finds himself being pulled in two directions. He sees the parole program as a lifeline for desperate families. But he desperately wants Congress to provide military aid for Ukraine, too.

He said it might be the only hope for his sister, who is on the front lines in Ukraine, to survive the war.

As lawmakers debate the merits of the parole program, some immigrants in the United States say all the political talk glosses over the calamities in their home countries.

“People are dying left and right, being kidnapped and it’s just impossible,” said Valerie Laveus, who came to America from Haiti nearly 20 years ago and became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 2008. “I am concerned because I feel like a lot of times these people are having these conversations and they’re forgetting the human factor. They’re forgetting that they’re talking about lives.”

Ms. Laveus said her brother, Reginald Daniel, waited years for a U.S. visa but got caught up in the growing backlog. She knew she had to help him flee, particularly after he began suffering seizures because of brain swelling from a gunshot wound to the head.

When Mr. Biden announced early last year that Haitians would be eligible for parole, Ms. Laveus immediately filed the paperwork to prove she would be able to financially support her brother and his son for two years.

“When my brother came, he was skin and bones,” Ms. Laveus said. “If I took a picture of how he looked and I gave you a picture of how he looks now, you would see the striking difference.”

Mr. Daniel is now training to work in security, and his son has attended a military academy in Florida. While Ms. Laveus is optimistic for her brother and nephew, she also is “very leery and worried” about what the congressional talks could mean for their opportunity to apply for future immigration status.

Mr. Biden’s allies say restricting use of parole would very likely backfire.

“It means that people in desperate circumstances, who need protection, who need to leave, who need to flee their options, will be more limited, which increases the likelihood they choose the dangerous option of coming to the border,” said Cecilia Muñoz, one of Mr. Biden’s top immigration officials during the transition and co-chair of Welcome.US, an organization that helps Americans sponsor the resettlement of refugees to the United States.

Karoun Demirjian contributed reporting from Washington.

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