By Dara Lind | Aug 30, 2023
The Biden administration’s humanitarian parole program for Cubans, Haitians, Nicaraguans, and Venezuelans (CHNV) went on trial last week. The trial, held in a federal court in Texas, was the result of a lawsuit filed in January 2023 (shortly after the program was expanded to Cuba, Haiti, and Nicaragua) by Texas and several other state governments. The states argued that the Biden administration was abusing its authority to parole noncitizens into the United States for significant public benefit or humanitarian reasons.
The lawsuit represents the first time that a use of the president’s immigration parole authority has been challenged in federal court. And a ruling against the program wouldn’t just throw the over 200,000 people with CHNV parole into chaos, but might throw a legal shadow over other parole programs expanded by the Biden administration – such as parole for Afghan and Ukrainian refugees and family reunification parole for several Latin American countries.
The trial provided a valuable window into how the CHNV parole program is working – not just at U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services processing centers, but in communities around the United States. Much of that insight was due to an unusual development in the lawsuit. Instead of simply being a suit between conservative states and the Biden administration, the trial also featured real people whose lives have been changed by the creation of CHNV.
Under the CHNV parole program, people already in the United States must apply to sponsor would-be parolees, and provide evidence that they have the financial resources to support them for the two years they would be allowed to live in the U.S. A group of these U.S. citizen sponsors were allowed to “intervene” in the lawsuit and present their own arguments and testimony. These sponsors defended what they and their lawyers called the “right to welcome” people experiencing hardship into the United States.
The intervenors demonstrated that a wide range of Americans are enthusiastic about welcoming and supporting parolees. Some of them are sponsoring their own relatives – in some cases, using the CHNV program to allow people to come to the United States who already have approved immigrant visas but are stuck in the visa backlog. Others are sponsoring friends – such as intervenor Eric Sype, who, by sponsoring his good friend Oldrys from Nicaragua, seeks to repay the favor done for him by Oldrys’ family when they hosted him in Nicaragua for several months in 2014.
Others are sponsoring people who they hadn’t previously known, as an act of service or as part of their faith communities. One such sponsor, Nan Langowitz, compared the person she’s sponsoring, Janeth, with her own grandparents: “We don’t know who helped our grandparents find their way after they arrived in the United States, but it is very likely that someone provided to my grandparents the same kind of assistance and support that I am now providing to Janeth.”
The intervenors’ testimonies also make clear that the CHNV program is not without its snags. One sponsor didn’t know her application had been approved until the person she was sponsoring contacted her about it. Despite the fact that people granted humanitarian parole are theoretically authorized to work legally in the United States as part of their CHNV parole, most of the parole recipients in the lawsuit had been waiting months for work permits to arrive.
But the stresses faced by those already in the United States pales beside that of people who are still waiting for USCIS to grant approval to come here. Anne Valerie Daniel-Leveus, for example, who has attempted to sponsor her brother and nephew in Haiti, testified that she has had to send money to buy a used motorcycle to take her nephew to and from school after he was targeted in an attempted kidnapping on the way home.
The government’s own testimony, meanwhile, made it clear that CHNV approval isn’t a given – which may cause frustration to would-be parolees and sponsors, but is consistent with the legal requirement to grant parole on a case-by-case basis. Data provided by the government at trial showed that in the first three months of 2023 (when the program was still ramping up) a small number of applications were being denied. But denial rates don’t tell the whole story, especially for applications being filed now – which will be pre-screened for “prioritization” even to enter the approval process.
Because the U.S. government has agreed to approve at most 30,000 parole applications a month under the CHNV program, and it’s receiving many more applications than that, the approval process and timeline has been somewhat opaque.
In May, the federal government announced that some applications would be selected by lottery, so that people who had applied more recently had some chance of being approved. Furthermore, as the government laid out in the trial, it’s now asking would-be sponsors to explain the humanitarian need or public benefit justifying a grant of parole as part of their applications. USCIS employees are then using the answers to that question to determine whether the application can continue with the approval process, or whether it should be put on hold because the need isn’t urgent enough to justify prioritizing it over other applications.
It’s not clear whether the judge will rule for or against the CHNV program. A final ruling won’t happen until November, since both sides have been ordered to submit additional documents and legal briefs throughout the fall. And even if the judge rules that the CHNV program violates federal law, it’s not clear whether the courts will force the Biden administration to stop processing applications while appealing the ruling, much less what a negative ruling would mean for beneficiaries already living and working in the United States.
In the meantime, not only do those granted parole (and their sponsors) have to worry that they will be suddenly forced to return to home countries where they may be impoverished or unsafe, but their day-to-day financial decisions are shaped by the potential need to save up for a trip home – even, potentially, at the expense of continuing to support relatives at home.
And the uncertainty doesn’t just touch the CHNV program. The states suing the Biden administration acknowledged in court that there’s no meaningful difference between CHNV and the Uniting for Ukraine parole program, despite not having sued over the latter when it was unveiled in 2022. (Indeed, an amicus brief filed by the Legal Information Network for Ukraine argued that the CHNV program is more restrictive and discretionary than U4U.) Under the Obama administration, a lawsuit over the efforts to expand deferred action paved the way for a retroactive challenge against the existing Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program; a broad ruling against the Biden administration in this case could, similarly, open the door for other parole programs to be challenged.
In the meantime, however, CHNV continues to allow parolees to come live and work legally – and Americans to practice the “right to welcome.”