Refugee Process for Ukrainians in the U.S.

The legal term “refugee” means a person who meets the definition of a refugee under the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) of the United States.

Defining “Refugee”

In everyday language, the word “refugee” simply means someone who had to flee their home because of war or another disaster. However, the legal term “refugee” means a person who meets the definition of a refugee under the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) of the United States, and who has been designated a refugee while still living abroad and selected for resettlement in the United States. A refugee under the INA is defined as a person who is outside their country of nationality or outside the country where they last lived for a length of time, and who cannot go back to their country, and who cannot be protected by the government of that country, because of past persecution or a fear of future persecution, on account of race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group. 

Refugee Processing Abroad

In order for someone to come to the United States as a refugee, they must go through refugee processing abroad. This is a long, bureaucratic process. They cannot apply directly to the United States for refugee status.  Instead, people generally must register with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.  They then undergo extensive vetting, and if they are determined to have a valid refugee claim, they are then resettled in a safe country. They do not get to choose the country they are resettled in, though family ties are taken into account.

Lautenberg Refugee Processing for Religious Minorities

One exception to registering for refugee status abroad is the Lautenberg program, which facilitates family reunification for refugees who are religious minorities.  Some Ukrainians from religious minority groups, including Jews, Evangelical Christians, and Ukrainian Christians of the Orthodox and Roman Catholic denominations, may be able to reunite with family members in the U.S. under the Lautenberg program. To qualify, the person must be the child, parent, sibling, grandparent, or grandchild of a U.S. citizen, lawful permanent resident, asylee, or refugee. To start the application process, the U.S. relative must apply through a resettlement agency located near where the U.S. family member lives. More information is available via HIAS and other refugee resettlement agencies.  On March 24, 2022, the Biden Administration announced a commitment to bring 100,000 Ukrainians to the United States.  On April 21, 2022, the administration announced the creation of Uniting for Ukraine, a special humanitarian parole program for Ukrainians.  The program began accepting applications on April 25, 2022. Please see our Uniting for Ukraine article for more information about this program. The administration also announced increased refugee resettlement processing, but details are as yet unknown.

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