NAstia 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 west-central Ukraine. Russian missiles had destroyed Vinnytsia’s airportbut her father could not leave because he is of fighting age, nor could her mother because she needed to care for Nastia’s two grandmothers, who are too sick 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 Nastia’s English teacher 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 over Telegram while she passed a lonely night at the bus station. In the morning, Nastia’s first stop was the US embassy.
“I thought everything would be good, I would come to the embassy and they would say to me… ‘Nastia, we were waiting for you all night!’” she said wryly. “But it doesn’t work this way.”
Even with an American willing to host 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 visa-free entry and temporary protection for at least one year. Canada is visa fast tracking for Ukrainians and the United Kingdom have promised visas to Ukrainians who have hosts there.
But the United States has been slower to offer refuge. On 24 March – a month after Russia’s invasion ignited the worst refugee crisis in Europe since the second world war – the Biden administration announced “Plans to welcome up to 100,000 Ukrainians and others fleeing Russia’s aggression through the full range of legal pathways”, with a focus on helping those who have families in the US.
While advocates have welcomed the announcement, they say that the US can and must do more. The US refugee program was decimated by the Trump administration and the already slow-moving queue for visas has been delayed further by the Covid-19 pandemic, which the US says “dramatically affected the Department of State’s ability to process immigrant visa applications”.
“The administration has options and there is precedent in emergencies like this for moving large groups of people to the US,” said Melanie Nezer, senior vice-president for global public affairs at HIAS, a global Jewish non-profit that protects refugees, in an interview. “The Kosovar Albanians in the 90s were airlifted to an army base in New Jersey and their refugee processing was finished here.”
Currently, some Ukrainians with family members in the US can be admitted as refugees under the Lautenberg program, which is open to certain religious minorities. Others can be sponsored by their relatives to receive immigrant visas, though they typically face extensive red tape. Ukrainians who arrived in the US before 1 March have been granted temporary protected status.
But questions remain about how the Biden administration will proceed, including whether asylum seekers from African countries who have faced difficulty fleeing Ukraine will be included, and how refugees who were already awaiting resettlement will be affected.
“The US needs a much more robust refugee and asylum policy,” said Nezer, pointing to the afghan refugee crisis that preceded the Russian invasion of Ukraine. “Now’s the time to pour the resources when we have all of this community support and the American people are really so much on board. Now’s 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 a US citizen in 2017, started the process of bringing her parents and sister to join them in Overland Park, Kansas, before the war began. Earlier this year, the application for Anya’s parents was approved. The next steps are a medical exam and an interview with US consular officials in Frankfurt, but their town in south-eastern Ukraine is currently occupied by Russian troops and it’s too dangerous to leave.
“They’re surrounded,” Anya said. For one six-day stretch she couldn’t reach her parents at all, though “for right now, they’re safe and they’re OK.”
The couple spoke to an immigration lawyer who told them it can take over a decade to bring a sibling to the US. They have been granted expedited 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 actually skipping ahead in line.
Andrew and Karina, a married couple in Kansas City, Missouri, who met 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 just so maddening,” Andrew said. If their visas had been approved, “obviously we would have been able to get them here a lot quicker.”
The couple asked that their surnames not be used to protect Karina’s parents. Her father de ella, a 53-year-old coalminer, has to remain in Ukraine for military service. Her mother was reluctant to leave him, but this week she boarded a train to western Ukraine with plans to continue to Poland, where Andrew, Karina and their nine-month-old son will fly to help her get settled for what they expect will be a long wait for a US visa.
crossing by land
Some Ukrainians desperate to come to the US, along with Russians and Belarusians fleeing political repression, are trying their luck at the US-Mexico border, with mixed results.
US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officers can exempt Ukrainians from Title 42, a Trump-era policy continued by the Biden administration that has been used to turn away hundreds of thousands of asylum seekers, ostensibly to prevent the spread of Covid-19. Public health experts have called the rule “scientifically baseless”, “politically motivated” and “inhumane.”
After the Title 42 exemption guidance was made public on 17 March, Ukrainians who walk up to the border crossing and show their passports will “generally be let in”, said Erika Pinheiro, the litigation and policy director for Al Otro Lado, a non- profit that provides legal and humanitarian assistance at the border. Most of the Ukrainians admitted since then have been granted one year of humanitarian paroleshe said.
“The nonsense treatment is striking,” Pinheiro said. “The Europeans are treated like human beings and the Black and brown migrants are screamed at and told to get back, told to just go away, and others are sometimes told to wait.”
However, some Ukrainians are still turned away and Al Otro Lado cautions that walk-up entry “could change at any moment if there is a rush of Ukrainians to the US-Mexico border” or if US policy changes. Most Ukrainians admitted have been granted one year of humanitarian parole after spending as little as an hour or as many as three to seven days in CBP detention, Pinheiro said.
Some Ukrainians and Russians seeking refuge have also been sent to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (Ice) detention centers, she said. “It’s just a complete nightmare that someone who fled war, fled through a dozen countries and fought their way to the border, is going to be put in an Ice prison,” Pinheiro said. “It just blows my mind. I cannot believe that the United States is doing that.”
no way out
Some Ukrainians have valid visas to enter the US but cannot leave their country. Liudmyla Maksimenko, a 34-year-old English teacher from Uman, has a visa through her job as chaperoning Ukrainian students who travel to study at an English school in Washington DC. Several American friends have reached out to offer free housing. But her eight-year-old son doesn’t have a visa, and with the US no longer providing visa services within Ukraine, she’d have to travel to another country to apply.
“If I knew for sure that I can go to Poland and get a [US] visa for my son, of course I would do it,” she said. But she does not have a place to stay there and ella ca n’t put together all the required documents for the visa, such as proof of her financial situation, because many institutions in Ukraine have closed.
As for Nastia, for now she is staying in a small town in Poland with an acquaintance of her mother’s. (The Guardian agreed to withhold Nastia’s surname from her to protect her parents from her.)
Simmons and her family spoke with four immigration lawyers about how they could help Nastia get to the US, to no avail. Her sister de ella, a dentist, was ready to employ Nastia as an assistant, but she could not provide it was essential to hire her. A Ukrainian cultural center in upstate New York where Nastia had worked for a summer was willing to host her again, but they were told that since she is no longer a student, she didn’t qualify for the exchange visa.
Ultimately, Simmons helped Nastia apply for a visa to Canada, a common destination for Ukrainians who have reached a dead end trying to get into the US. Nastia has an appointment scheduled to be fingerprinted and photographed soon.
Simmons still hopes to bring Nastia to Ohio to stay with her family, but wasn’t hopeful the US government’s announcement would make a difference for her former student. “I think they’re feeling a bit of pressure from people so want to make it look like they’re doing something,” she said.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism