Red Tape and Long Waits: US Visas Remain Out of Reach for Ukrainian Refugees | Ukraine
NOTAstia arrived at the Warsaw bus station late at night with nowhere to go. The 25-year-old had made the difficult decision to leave her home and family in Vinnytsia Oblast in central-western Ukraine. Russian missiles had destroyed Vinnytsia airport, but her father couldn’t leave because he was of fighting age, nor her mother because she had to take care of Nastya’s two grandmothers, who are too ill to travel .
Now in Poland, terrified and unable to reach her mother, Nastia used Telegram to message someone who might be able to help: Caitlyn Simmons, a former Peace Corps volunteer who had been the English teacher of Nastya a decade earlier.
From her home in Columbus, Ohio, Simmons booked her former student a hotel room for the next day, then kept her company via Telegram while she spent a lonely night at the bus station. In the morning, Nastia’s first stop was the United States Embassy.
“I thought everything would be fine, I would come to the embassy and they would say to me… ‘Nastia, we’ve been waiting for you all night!’ she said wryly. “But it doesn’t work that way.”
Even with an American willing to house her in the United States, there was no way for Nastia to get a visa.
As millions of Ukrainians flee their homes, the European Union has opened its doors to them, offering them visa-free entry and temporary protection for at least a year. Canada is fast-tracking visas for Ukrainians and the UK has promised visas for Ukrainians who have hosts there.
But the United States has been slower to offer refuge. On March 24 – a month after the Russian invasion sparked Europe’s worst refugee crisis since World War II – the Biden administration announced “plans to welcome up to 100,000 Ukrainians and others fleeing the ‘Russian aggression by all legal means’, with a focus on helping those who have family in the United States.
While advocates welcomed the announcement, they say the United States can and should do more. The U.S. refugee program has been decimated by the Trump administration and the already slow visa queue has been further delayed by the Covid-19 pandemic, which the U.S. says “significantly affected the Department of State’s ability to process immigrant visa applications”.
“The administration has options and there are precedents in emergencies like this for moving large groups of people to the United States,” said Melanie Nezer, senior vice president of global public affairs at HIAS, a global Jewish nonprofit that protects refugees, in an interview. “Kosovo Albanians in the 90s were airlifted to a military base in New Jersey and their processing of refugees was terminated here.”
Currently, some Ukrainians with family members in the United States can be admitted as refugees under the Lautenberg program, which is open to certain religious minorities. Others may be sponsored by relatives to receive immigrant visas, although they usually face heavy paperwork. Ukrainians who arrived in the United States before March 1 were granted Temporary Protected Status.
But questions remain about how the Biden administration will proceed, including whether asylum seekers from African countries who have had difficulty fleeing Ukraine will be included, and how refugees already awaiting resettlement will be affected.
“The United States needs a much stronger refugee and asylum policy,” Nezer said, pointing to the Afghan refugee crisis that preceded Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. “Now is the time to pour in the resources when we have all this community support and the American people are really so on board. Now is the time to fix the problems, rebuild and be ready to be a welcoming nation again.
Josh Coup and his Ukrainian wife, Anya, who became an American citizen in 2017, began the process of bringing his parents and sister to join them in Overland Park, Kansas, before the war started. Earlier this year, Anya’s parents’ application was approved. Next steps are a medical and interview with US consular officials in Frankfurt, but their town in southeastern Ukraine is currently occupied by Russian troops and it is too dangerous to leave.
“They’re surrounded,” Anya said. For a period of six days she was unable to reach her parents at all, but “at the moment they are safe and doing well”.
The couple spoke to an immigration lawyer who told them it could take more than a decade to bring a sibling to the United States. They got fast-track processing for Anya’s sister, who is also in a Russian-occupied area, but the lawyer told them it was more of a formality than queuing.
Andrew and Karina, a married couple from Kansas City, Missouri, who met while doing humanitarian work in eastern Ukraine, helped Karina’s parents in Donetsk Oblast apply for US tourist visas in December 2020. Their interviews were postponed twice due to Covid. “It’s so infuriating,” Andrew said. If their visas had been approved, “obviously we could have got them here much faster.”
The couple asked that their surnames not be used to protect Karina’s parents. Her father, a 53-year-old minor, must remain in Ukraine for military service. His mother was reluctant to leave him, but this week she boarded a train west to Ukraine with the intention of continuing on to Poland, where Andrew, Karina and their nine-month-old son will take the plane to help him settle in for what they hope will be a long wait for a US visa.
Some Ukrainians desperate to come to the United States, as well as Russians and Belarusians fleeing political repression, are trying their luck at the US-Mexico border, with mixed results.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officials can exempt Ukrainians from Title 42, a Trump-era policy pursued by the Biden administration that has been used to turn away hundreds of thousands of applicants asylum, apparently to prevent the spread of Covid-19. Public health experts called the rule “without scientific basis”, “politically motivated” and “inhumane”.
After Title 42 exemption guidelines were made public on March 17, Ukrainians who walk to the border crossing and show their passports will “generally be let in”, said Erika Pinheiro, director of litigation and policy at ‘Al Otro Lado, a non-profit that provides legal and humanitarian assistance at the border.
“The disparate treatment is striking,” Pinheiro said. “Europeans are treated like human beings and black and brown migrants are yelled at and told to come back, to leave, and sometimes others are told to wait.”
However, some Ukrainians are still being turned away and Al Otro Lado warns that walk-in entry “could change at any time if there is a rush of Ukrainians to the US-Mexico border” or if US policy changes. Most admitted Ukrainians have been granted a year of humanitarian parole after spending as little as an hour or as many as three to seven days in CBP custody, Pinheiro said.
Some Ukrainians and Russians seeking refuge were also sent to Immigration and Customs (ICE) detention centers, she said. “It’s just a complete nightmare that someone who fled war, fled through a dozen countries and made their way to the border, is going to be put in a prison of ice,” he said. said Pinheiro. “It just blows my mind. I can’t believe the United States is doing this.
Some Ukrainians have valid visas to enter the United States but cannot leave their country. Liudmyla Maksimenko, a 34-year-old English teacher from Uman, got a visa through her work mentoring Ukrainian students who travel to study at an English school in Washington DC. Several American friends have reached out to offer free accommodation. But her eight-year-old son does not have a visa, and since the United States no longer provides visa services in Ukraine, she would have to travel to another country to apply.
“If I was sure that I can go to Poland and get a [US] visa for my son, of course I would,” she said. But she has no accommodation there and cannot gather all the documents required for the visa, such as proof of her financial situation, because many institutions in Ukraine have closed.
As for Nastia, she is staying for the moment in a small town in Poland with an acquaintance of her mother. (The Guardian has agreed to withhold Nastia’s last name to protect her parents.)
Simmons and her family spoke with four immigration lawyers about how they could help Nastia get to the United States, to no avail. Her sister, a dentist, was willing to employ Nastia as an assistant, but could not prove that hiring her was essential. A Ukrainian cultural center in upstate New York where Nastia had worked for a summer was willing to welcome her back, but they were told that since she was no longer a student, she was not eligible. to the exchange visa.
Ultimately, Simmons helped Nastia apply for a visa for Canada, a common destination for Ukrainians who hit a stalemate trying to enter the United States. Nastya has an appointment scheduled to be fingerprinted and photographed soon.
Simmons still hopes to bring Nastia to Ohio to stay with her family, but did not hope the US government’s announcement would make a difference to her former student. “I think they feel a bit of pressure from people, so they want to look like they’re doing something,” she said.