7.18.2022

The "Uniting for Ukraine" Experience: Guide & Resources

Last Update: 9/27/22

Before You Read On:
If you would like to help a Ukrainian family but are unable to act as a sponsor, we welcome you to join us in supporting our sponsored friends by giving at onrealm.org/chatham/give/ukrainefamily. Thank you for your support and prayers!

You can also read and hear more of our story as featured on St. Louis Public Radio.

A few months ago, I shared an article regarding the war in Ukraine and the need to process this event biblically and prayerfully. Such processing should also move us to action as the Lord directs and allows. Consequently, I now find myself, along with my church, in a unique position to directly support Ukrainian friends via the Uniting for Ukraine (U4U) program.

Having walked through the process of sponsorship, I continue to learn the many complexities of navigating the U4U humanitarian parole program and assisting beneficiaries in the best ways possible. Below, I’ve documented various steps of the program, plus requirements and considerations for sponsors and refugees, in part as a guide for anyone who would like to serve and support Ukrainians through the present crisis.

Since I was able to co-sponsor this family with my church, I am also hopeful some details might provide a model for other churches wishing to serve immigrant and refugee families. And I plan to provide appropriate updates, since we are constantly learning new ways to navigate government systems while monitoring program updates.

What is Uniting for Ukraine?
Per the Uniting for Ukraine page: “Uniting for Ukraine provides a pathway for Ukrainian citizens and their immediate family members who are outside the United States to come to the United States and stay temporarily in a two-year period of parole. Ukrainians participating in Uniting for Ukraine must have a supporter in the United States who agrees to provide them with financial support for the duration of their stay in the United States.”

My answer might be: “Uniting for Ukraine is quite an experience.” It’s also an unexpected privilege. I want to begin by encouraging all who are already engaged in this process, along with those considering getting involved with Ukrainian refugees as we welcome them into the U.S. Thank you for your willingness to serve those in need.

Topics are broken into the following sections below:

▸ HELPFUL RESOURCES
▸ THE FORM I-134 APPLICATION PROCESS
▸ FLIGHTS AND TRAVEL
▸ ANTICIPATING BASIC AND ONGOING NEEDS
▸ NAVIGATING GOVERNMENT REQUIREMENTS AND SYSTEMS
▸ THE BEST ADVICE: BE PATIENT

____________

▸ HELPFUL RESOURCES

• Uniting for Ukraine page portals: uscis.gov/ukraine | Yкраїнський переклад | Русский
Frequently Asked Questions About Uniting for Ukraine
(USCIS)
• Uniting for Ukraine Support Line (U4USL):
407-591-3963
Interactive Sponsorship Guides
(Welcome.US)
Resources for Ukrainian Refugees
(Nova Ukraine)
North America for Ukraine


▸ THE FORM I-134 APPLICATION PROCESS

Who Can Sponsor a Ukrainian Individual or Family?
Only an individual U.S. citizen or green card holder can officially file to sponsor a Ukrainian beneficiary through the Uniting for Ukraine program. This is due in part to specific financial information required for the Form I-134 Declaration of Financial Support. A sponsor must prove both their immigration status and that they are stable enough to support any beneficiaries. Therefore, a significant amount of detailed personal and financial data is required to be disclosed. These requirements are primarily in place to ensure a beneficiary does not become a public charge and to help protect from trafficking.

However, for purposes of this program, an organization or group of people can also join the primary individual as co-sponsor(s), and additional document evidence may be provided to indicate collective available resources. In our case, our church provided a letter stating they would assist with housing and financial support. Since it was unclear where this information was to be shared within the portal, I included the letter along with other required financial evidence. All documents must be uploaded as PDF or JPG.

Registration With U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS)
A sponsor who agrees to the terms will be required to create an account with USCIS. This process will take some time to work through, with numerous security redundancies. Once an account is created, the sponsor can then file a Form I-134 online for each beneficiary. Later in the process following approval, the beneficiary must also open their own account(s) in order to proceed with their own attestation.

One Form Per Beneficiary

A single sponsor may support multiple beneficiaries, and each beneficiary will require an individual form. In our case, for a family of six, as many forms were required. Especially with multiple family members, this is a long and tedious process, with a lot of redundancy in what you will attach and submit. You will need to gather sensitive personal data for each beneficiary, including names, contact information, birth dates and passport details, taking care to protect this information. It can help to be prepared with all information in a document from which you can copy and paste as possible. (Please note that the Form I-134 has been modified for online use specifically for the U4U program, and must be submitted as a paper form for all other applications.)

Sponsor Financial Requirements and Responsibilities
These were some of the most difficult questions to find direct answers to with regard to the U4U program. There was no clear statement within the portal as to what amount qualifies as sufficient financial resources a sponsor must demonstrate to "receive, maintain, and support" a beneficiary and receive approval. It is generally understood that one must prove access to resources equivalent to at least 100% of Federal Poverty Guidelines (FPG) per person. To be safe, we assumed this should include all members of our household and all beneficiaries, so a total of 8 people. FPG guidelines are available to view at uscis.gov/i-864p.

While the Form I-134 is not a legally binding contract, it is a statement of moral obligation to all named beneficiaries. Therefore, those considering sponsorship should be fully aware of the broad scope of what it will mean to support beneficiaries even after their arrival in the U.S., as outlined below. Be honest, both in your attestation on this form, and your commitment to Ukrainian refugees who will need ongoing help and support.

Bank Information
Your bank will need to provide a letter proving you have an account and what date it was opened. However, we were informed that by law the bank could not include information on deposits for the past 12 months within that letter as suggested by the instructions. Instead, you will also need to upload individual bank statements for the past year, which should be available to download free from your online account. The bank may charge to print these statements, and printed documents will still need to be scanned as a PDF or JPG in order to upload. It is fairly easy, though somewhat time consuming, to retrieve the online statements and collect them in a file along with other necessary information.

Data Saving and Corrections
All data should be automatically saved for up to 30 days from the time you last worked on the I-134 so you can return and continue working later. Just be sure to verify each page is saved as any updates are made. Any item in the form can be modified up to the point of submission. Check all work carefully, as there is a lot of required data and mistakes can be easy to make. Please note that once a form is submitted, no further corrections can be made directly by either the sponsor or beneficiary. There was also no option in the corrections drop menu for the Form I-134 at the time we submitted our forms. Because we noticed an error on the form after submission, I attempted to write a note to USCIS via their internal messaging system, and the beneficiary attempted to do the same in his account. We are thankful the issue did not hinder their progress in attestation or arrival in the U.S., and that a correction was finally made several months later without any follow up notification to let us know.

Form Submission and Approval
After gathering all required information and documents, I began to finalize the forms on a Saturday afternoon. During this process, as I finished and attempted to submit the third of six forms, I found the site suddenly down for maintenance, forcing me to wait to complete the rest. So be prepared for potential disruptions.

Once all paperwork was submitted, we awaited results and were surprised and quite relieved at how quickly the submissions were approved. Forms were submitted May 21/23. Cases were confirmed May 24. Travel Authorization was granted May 29. Part of the reason for this quick authorization was due to the fact that our beneficiaries were already prepared with information they would need to submit as soon as they received notification that the cases were confirmed.

Please note that if a form is rejected, you or another individual may file again on behalf of the same beneficiary.

Beneficiary Vaccine Attestation
All beneficiaries must make arrangements to receive or attest to having already received a variety of vaccinations prior to approval, including measles, polio and COVID-19. Ideally, appropriate appointments should be made during or even before the sponsor’s work of filling out the Form I-134. Vaccine requirements are available at the U4U Vaccine Attestation preview page below. See notes specifically regarding the IGRA tuberculosis screening under “NAVIGATING GOVERNMENT REQUIREMENTS AND SYSTEMS.”

Uniting for Ukraine Vaccine Attestation Preview

Travel Authorization
Ultimately, the beneficiary should receive their travel authorization. I did receive a notification that something had changed in my account, but the notice did not give particular details, and I did not initially realize the family was fully approved. For a moment, it appeared I was simply locked out of each of their forms, as the rest of the attestation process is then up to the beneficiary to complete. Once I verified with the beneficiary what had happened, there was much rejoicing.

 

▸ FLIGHTS AND TRAVEL
It is up to the beneficiary to secure their own travel arrangements, so sponsors may need to be prepared to book flights and help cover costs in some cases. Sponsor and beneficiaries should be sure to clarify these needs in advance. The beneficiary will have up to 3 months to travel, and it is not recommended that tickets be purchased prior to travel authorization. Sponsors may now request a one-time travel autorization extension if circumstances beyond a beneficiary's control prevent travel within the allotted 90-day period.

In our case, our church was able to provide and secure airline tickets for the family with the help of a travel agent, who learned of certain discounts with one airline available for those in humanitarian crisis. Therefore, the help of a travel agent may be recommended.

Other significant travel considerations include the following.

Paperwork - The beneficiary must be sure to have all travel documents, tickets, passports, visas, required letters and so on available at all times. Our family dealt with some ticketing confusion getting on their first flight, but this was resolved by an airline representative once necessary documents were provided.

Customs - The U.S. customs process is likely to take several hours due to long lines, biometric data collection and other issues. Those booking travel should be sure to allow adequate time if a layover between flights is necessary.

Delays - Due to COVID-19, staffing issues and increasing public travel, flight delays and other airline issues are presently common. Our family was delayed on their first flight, and time in customs caused them to miss their second, resulting in an overnight hotel stay. The originating airline indicated they would cover the cost of a hotel due to their plane being delayed, however they also refused to provide a hotel voucher for the evening, causing the family to secure their own arrangements and pay up front. They were also unable to secure another flight until late the following night. Be prepared for anything when it comes to airports and airlines.

Pickup - The sponsor will need to make arrangements for the beneficiary to be transported from the airport to initial housing. This was an amazing moment of relief for all on July 2, even as we helped navigate locating and moving luggage around the airport. Since our family was delayed more than 24 hours, sponsor plans needed to be canceled and/or modified. Flexibility is key.


▸ ANTICIPATING BASIC AND ONGOING NEEDS
It is advisable to have a plan for when the beneficiary or family arrives and for the foreseeable future, and to continue monitoring changing needs as they resettle. Many families are arriving in the United States with little more than what they have managed to carry in their luggage. In our case, with such a large family and co-sponsorship, our church was able to do the following.

Financial Support - Initially, beneficiaries will not be able to legally work in the U.S. (see Form I-765 info.), and will have many needs to start. We were able to share the need for financial support both within our church and out to the larger community, including use of a special donation link shared via social media. Upon hearing of the situation, many were eager to help. Even an individual sponsor without a co-sponsor organization should consider partnering with friends and family to join in assisting with financial needs. Applicable benefits assistance should also ease the burden, and this is further discussed below.

Care Team - We formed a team to consider and meet different needs in advance of the family’s arrival and beyond. This included house prep, grocery shopping, household goods and more. It’s been amazing to watch the Lord connect exactly the right people with the right skills to assist in very specific areas to meet this family’s needs.

Housing - Our church happens to own a “Mission House,” typically used to support missionary families while on furlough or preparing to go out to the field. Since our family were already missionaries supported by our church, and they are a larger family to house, it made sense to utilize this house to get them started in the U.S. We also had individuals ready to take them in if needed.

Driving/Transportation - In order to drive in the U.S., an individual must acquire an international driver’s license (IDL), which can only be obtained in one’s country of origin. In the state of Missouri, drivers without an IDL are required to retest to receive a license. We also learned the written portion of the test is available in Russian, but all other parts of the testing are in English, so language barriers may be a consideration. I was able to share a link to the state driver’s manual and provide a printed copy so they could begin to study for testing. Practice tests are also available online. In the meantime, we formed a transportation team to help the family of six connect with rides as needed.

Bikes - A bicycle, especially for those presently without vehicle access, can provide a greater level of freedom. We were able to find a local organization willing to donate rebuilt bikes to the family. Some organizations are willing to help refugees and lower income families get equipped with bikes, so it may be worth some research to learn if this is an option where you live.

Communication/Phones - Initially we made sure the family had immediate access to WIFI for electronic communication, and we connected via e-mail and Facebook Messenger, which worked overseas as well. We then assessed the family’s phone situation, put out a plea for a used iPhone to replace a damaged one, and found a low cost carrier that could provide an updated SIM card for use in the United States. We also paid for the phone plan via a business credit card until such time as they were able to acquire a bank account with debit card. Having a regular phone number as quickly as possible will be significant for application forms. As an alternative, one might start with a free WIFI calling service, such as WhatsApp or Talkatone, that provides a phone number for calls and texts. Google Voice offers a free number and app for such use, however it must be linked to another number in order to set up and keep. A temporarily linked number would suffice to get a user started until they can acquire a regular phone.

Community Resources - Prior to arrival, I spoke to representatives at our local library, which is walking distance from the house. Since the family would not have a utility bill in their name to prove residency, I was able to provide a letter from the church as acceptable proof, and they were immediately able to take full advantage of library resources. Another church member contacted the local community center to help the family gain access to those facilities. In both instances, once we explained the situation to appropriate representatives they were eager to help. Connecting immigrants to such resources can provide significant opportunities and help with integration.

ESL/ELL - Language barriers for primarily Ukrainian and Russian speakers can make the difficulty of trying to navigate a new culture considerably more challenging. It may help to locate ESL (English as a Second Language) or ELL (English Language Learner) classes and resources in your area. These classes may also be required to obtain certain benefits. We learned about summer school classes for kids, and "Parent University" ELL classes for adults from Memorial Day to Labor Day available through the local public school district. Our library system offers free use of Mango Languages online. Other free apps, such as Duolingo, may also be helpful. In addition, individuals from our church with ESL training were glad to step in and work especially with the kids during summer since the summer school session had already closed.

School Registration - Because school registration is now done exclusively online, I initially connected the family with another at the church who are familiar with the registration process. Thankfully, we were ultimately able to connect with the district’s ELL and Immigration specialist, who helped direct us to the Families in Transition program to get the family fully registered. This process included the availability of a Russian translator. In this district, students above elementary level are specially transported to the Newcomer Center schools, and all of them will receive help from language specialists as needed. Since many staff members were out for summer break when we began to contact the district, another administrator requested each student’s name and school in order to help connect them to appropriate school social worker in advance. We have found these social workers to be an invaluable resource for any needs students or families may have.

Vaccinations
- One complicated component of school registration may include required vaccinations. We asked the school district to help translate the family's existing Ukrainian records to help expedite this process, and are hoping to visit a local health department office for a walk-in visit. If possible, it is best to try obtaining vaccinations early since so many families wait until the last minute before the start of the school year, which may cause delays in getting appointments or lead to shortages for certain vaccines. Students may also not be allowed to enroll or could be expelled if vaccinations are not received within a certain window of time. There is also a legal requirement to receive COVID-19 vaccinations either prior to arriving or within 90 days of arrival in the U.S. via the U4U program. So families will need assistance in making and keeping all appointments.

Banking - Our local bank verified a Social Security Number is required to open more than a short term account. The family desired an account so they could more easily pay for items themselves, but this was delayed until an SSN could be obtained. More on this below.


▸ NAVIGATING GOVERNMENT REQUIREMENTS AND SYSTEMS
Many sponsors are unaware of the multiple levels of assistance a beneficiary will need once they arrive in the U.S., perhaps especially in navigating government agencies, and it can be very confusing and difficult to find accurate answers. Different states are handling the situation in various ways, and while I am told New York and Chicago presently have better models, even in those locations more assistance is needed. While different individuals and families will have different needs, the following will be significant for many Ukrainian refugees as they resettle.


» U.S. IGRA Tuberculosis Screening
As a final part of their U4U attestation after arrival in the U.S., the beneficiary is required to have a tuberculosis screening starting with an IGRA (interferon-gamma release assay) blood test. This was initially to be completed within 14 days of arrival in the U.S. However, the timeframe was extended to 90 days as of July 13, 2022.

NOTE: This is not a standard TB stick test, but the specific IGRA blood test for tuberculosis. This point can be confusing, and these tests may be difficult to find. Initially, the sponsor needed to make testing arrangements in advance of the beneficiary’s arrival in order for them to complete attestation within 2 weeks. The updated timeframe should greatly alleviate the stressors I experienced of locating IGRA testing within a shorter window, however it remains advisable to make arrangements as soon as possible.

With some research, I learned these tests are typically available through local public health authorities, and can only be otherwise authorized by a doctor, which may be more costly and difficult to find new patient appointments. Unfortunately, in our case, while St. Louis County Public Health does provide standard TB tests, they were unable to provide IGRA testing at that time. After numerous calls and questions to immigration and medical contacts, yet no closer to finding a provider, I began contacting health authorities in other area jurisdictions. Thankfully, our nearby St. Charles County Health Dept. was willing to set appointments for Q Gold testing prior to the family’s arrival, stating they had recently tested three other Ukrainian families. Not all agencies are so helpful to those outside their own jurisdictions. So be specific, patient and kind as you work out these arrangements, even if others are not. And always say “thank you.”

According to one of many agencies I contacted, TB spread is high in Russia and nearby regions. Another shared that individuals from that region tend to receive a vaccine which can cause a false read on the TB stick test, hence the IGRA testing requirement. Furthermore, a pediatrician friend learned of a national shortage of tubes specifically used for this test, which may also affect availability in some locations.


» Form I-94  
Each beneficiary will need to access their I-94 admission number/record, which is proof of their legal visitor status in the United States. This proof of status will be required for various applications, such as benefits. I was first made aware of the necessity of this form while speaking to someone regarding testing for a driver’s license. The form and information may be printed and/or downloaded. Each beneficiary should also have a related stamp on their passport if additional proof is needed.

• Form I-94: i94.cbp.dhs.gov/I94



» Humanitarian Parole Status vs. Path to Citizenship
Uniting for Ukraine provides a 2 year humanitarian parolee status in the U.S., and is NOT in and of itself a path to citizenship. On the third day the program existed, I was able to speak to a government representative by phone. (Reaching a representative by phone was subsequently impossible shortly after this time, presumably due to an overwhelming amount of calls). At that time, I was told the best path to citizenship would most likely be to obtain a work permit (Form I-765), after which an employer may be able to assist the beneficiary in applying for a green card. Learn more about green cards at uscis.gov/green-card.


» Form I-765 Work Permit
Non-citizens are required to apply for a work permit or EAD (Employment Authorization Document) before they are legally allowed to work in the United States. This is also the recommended way to apply for a Social Security number, as discussed in more detail below. Applicants should also submit a Form I-912, which should waive the typical fees associated with the I-765 application. Both forms must be submitted by mail to your regional office (in our case, Chicago) in order to apply with the fee waiver.

We were initially told it may take up to 8 months to receive work permit approval, and forms are being handled in the order in which they are received. However, our family received their cards fairly quickly, with a few rejection notices we are still sorting out for one family member. Documents may be resubmitted in case of rejections.

A biometrics appointment, including a photo and finger printing, is also be part of this application process. Official approval was received the day after this appointment at our local USCIS office in downtown St. Louis. EAD cards were received shortly after.

• Form I-765: uscis.gov/i-765
• Form I-912 Fee Waiver: uscis.gov/i-912


Since it is not legal for immigrants to work without proper authorization, but the family wants to continue to serve and stay active, we considered various volunteer opportunities to help keep them engaged and continue their integration until they are able to find jobs.


» Social Security
Working through SSN application was initially very confusing to us, but the process is now far more clear. As the U4U program has since indicated, a Social Security Number may be assigned by filling out the Form I-765 for an Employment Authorization Document (EAD) and checking the box indicating an SSN is desired. According to one USCIS official, in July 2022, this application process was streamlined to take 25 to 30 days, so it is unnecessary for any beneficiary who would like to work to also apply at a local Social Security office, which will save a lot of time and confusion.

As we learned, any Social Security card received without work authorization will be labeled as non-working. If an EAD is granted, the individual must then return to a Social Security office to receive a new card, which will be needed to provide to an employer at time of hiring. Given the rapid responses of approval/rejection notices for the EAD, it is typically best to simply apply using the Form I-765.

If one is unable to work, or if the EAD is officially denied for legitimate reasons, and not for errors that can be corrected and resubmitted, individuals might then try applying at a local Social Security office if an SSN is desired for other purposes, such as opening a bank account. (Please note that any reapplication will need to include the Form I-912 Fee Waiver to count as payment, without which it will be rejected.) So it is helpful to be aware of these considerations as a family or individual processes their particular needs.


» Benefits Assistance
Beneficiaries may be eligible for a number of benefits, available for a limited period as they begin their lives in the U.S. Sponsors should plan to assist in finding the closest agencies to help beneficiaries apply as soon as reasonable after their arrival.

Benefits for Ukrainian Humanitarian Parolees Fact Sheet
Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) Local Agency Finder
The International Institute of St. Louis (IISTL)


Our family was able to visit the International Institute of St. Louis, our local ORR, and after answering a few questions and filling out some form, received help applying for Medicaid, which will be reassessed after 1 year, and SNAP (Food Stamps), which is reassessed every 6 months. IISTL will also put in their information for a couple of other possible programs, including cash assistance, some of which are still being determined for Ukrainian refugees. This helped us streamline the process so the family did not need to try to understand and apply for each individual program. We were very excited that both SNAP and Medicaid were fully approved and received just a few weeks after application.

Regarding Medicaid, individuals may need help navigating online insurance portals or speaking with representatives in order to locate appropriate providers who are accepting new patients. As with most medical insurance offered in the U.S., not all doctors and medical offices will accept a particular insurance plan.

Local Tip:
For those in the St. Louis area, please be aware that IISTL is very overwhelmed, and can be difficult to connect with, but you will be directed to this office and their services are invaluable. Once I was able to get information for the person presently handling benefits assistance, an e-mail was most effective in receiving a return call. If you reach someone at the main line, it is recommended you request a direct phone number and e-mail address for the appropriate contact prior to allowing them to transfer your call. You will typically be required to leave a message and may be redirected to the wrong voicemail, so be prepared to follow up by other means if you do not hear back within a reasonable period.


▸ THE BEST ADVICE: BE PATIENT
While saved here for last, this is the number one piece of advice I can give to both sponsors and beneficiaries: Be patient. Getting correct answers and finding appointments may be difficult. Forms processing will take time. Our running joke is that this entire process is “for our sanctification.” And while that keeps us laughing as we’ve run into the next brick wall for the day, we can clearly see how the Lord is working through all of it as we move through each step.

As I am reminded through many calls, thousands of people are simultaneously going through this process and experiencing similar issues. Don’t try to accomplish everything at once. Do try to maintain realistic expectations, knowing that while bureaucracy can drag on, the Lord is working everything out in His own time.

So set time aside for form completion, phone calls, e-mails, appointments, missteps, and redirects, and plan to enjoy an inordinate amount of hold music. (Seriously.) But for all the effort and potential frustration, I assure you it is all worth it to have this opportunity to serve others in such a profound way.

Thank you again to all who are assisting the people of Ukraine and other refugees joining us here in the U.S.

3 comments:

  1. Anyone interested in sponsoring Ukrainians, please check out the FB group North America for Ukraine. They help match potential sponsors and Ukrainians, and guide you through the process. https://www.facebook.com/groups/na4ukraine

    ReplyDelete
  2. I did a video presentation with Welcome Neighbor STL, Bilingual International, and NA4Ukraine about sponsorship: https://youtu.be/KOpQ6i63ECU?t=147

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks for sharing some additional resources, Kathleen!

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Thanks for reading, and for sharing your thoughts. Have a great day!