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By Ted Hesson
WASHINGTON (Reuters) -The Biden administration will allow Ukrainians fleeing Russia's invasion of their home country to come to the United States temporarily if they have American sponsors, U.S. officials said on Thursday.
A new fast-track "humanitarian parole" program starting next week will offer qualifying Ukrainians the ability to stay in the United States for up to two years, one official said on a call with reporters. Unlike the U.S. refugee resettlement program, it does not provide a path to citizenship.
Any U.S. citizen, including representatives of businesses and nonprofit organizations, can apply to sponsor Ukrainians seeking refuge in the United States but must show financial support and pass background checks, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) said.
Sponsors can submit applications for the program, called "Uniting for Ukraine," beginning on Monday - a process another official said could take a week to complete.
Facing pressure from lawmakers and refugee advocates, President Joe Biden's administration said last month the United States would accept up to 100,000 Ukrainians.
About 5 million people have fled Ukraine, mostly for neighboring countries, since Russia invaded on Feb. 24. While most Ukrainians will want to remain in Europe, the Biden administration says, the new initiative will make it easier for those with family or other sponsors in the United States to travel there.
"This program will be fast, it will be streamlined, and will ensure the United States honors its commitment (to) the people of Ukraine," Biden said during remarks at the White House.
Any person outside the United States can already apply for humanitarian parole but must demonstrate an urgent reason to be allowed to enter the country or that their entry will significantly benefit the United States.
More than 350 Ukrainians have already sought humanitarian parole to enter the United States since the start of the conflict through early April, Reuters reported this month.
The new program set to begin on Monday will require U.S. sponsors to apply on behalf of Ukrainians and will offer an accelerated process, one of the officials said on Thursday. Approved Ukrainians will be eligible for work permits, DHS said.
In addition to humanitarian parole, Biden aims to improve access to other pathways for Ukrainians to enter the United States, including the U.S. refugee resettlement program and existing visa avenues.
The effort to bring up to 100,000 Ukrainians to the United States could stretch beyond the current fiscal year ending on Sept. 30, the administration has said.
While thousands of Ukrainians have entered the United States via the border with Mexico and some on legal visas, only 12 Ukrainians came through the U.S. refugee program in March.
Ukrainians in Europe should apply to the new parole program from there and not travel to Mexico to enter the United States, DHS said.
About 3,300 Ukrainians were encountered by U.S. southern border authorities in March, according to U.S. government data.
The number of Ukrainians attempting to enter at the border rose sharply in April, according to internal U.S. government figures reviewed by Reuters, with an average of about 1,000 per day arriving from April 10-16.
(Reporting by Ted Hesson in Washington; Additional reporting by Susan Heavey; Editing by Aurora Ellis, Jonathan Oatis and Rosalba O'Brien)