Ukrainians fleeing war face onerous process to enter US

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Svitlana Rogers had been trying for weeks to bring her sister’s family – who had fled Ukraine and now lived in Warsaw – to live with her and her family in Princeton, New Jersey.

His representatives in Congress have all told him that their hands are tied. Then came news from the White House: President Joe Biden announced a new process for Ukrainians to enter the United States through American sponsorship.

“I immediately texted my sister when I heard the news,” Rogers said. “She was very happy.”

But when the website launched on April 25, they both realized the amount of work that lay ahead of them and worried that they would not be able to provide all the documents required by the government. Not only did Rogers have to prove her own income, but she also had to show that her sister’s family was in good health and on good financial footing.

For 10 days, they called friends on the ground in their hometown of Mykolaiv, Ukraine, playing a long phone game to get what they needed: vaccination records from doctors’ offices that have since closed, a deed to the house they fled when Russia invaded, proof of the income the family could earn in the United States.

Svitlana Rogers and her family talk with her sister Olena Kopchak, niece Yana Kopchak and brother-in-law Albert Kodua via video call from New Jersey to Poland.Courtesy of Svitlana Rogers

“It took my sister a long time to call Ukrainian friends and see who stayed and could help find their doctors, vaccination records and act,” Rogers said.

The web portal, known as Uniting for Ukraine, is now the only viable way for Ukrainians fleeing the war to come to the United States.

Department of Homeland Security instructions tell applicants that they can list the home of the Ukrainian they are sponsoring as an asset in order to prove their worth. “if it can be converted to cash within 12 months” and if they can provide “documentation showing that the recipient owns the home, a recent appraisal by a licensed appraiser and proof of the amount of all secured loans by a mortgage, deed of trust, or other lien on the home.

Considering his sister had left her home in a war zone, Rogers was in disbelief. Still, she somehow tracked down a copy of the deed by calling friends in the field.

Rogers isn’t the only one disappointed with the web portal. Nonprofits and religious organizations, which were assured by Biden that they would also be able to sponsor Ukrainians, found that only individuals are able to sponsor refugees.

The Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, which resettled 25% of Ukrainians admitted in the past under the US refugee program, is no longer qualified to sponsor Ukrainians. And the group’s chairman and chief executive, Krish O’Mara Vignarajah, said he has heard from individuals that “the burden of proof is considerable”.

“Vulnerable people who have been displaced through no fault of their own should not be denied security for financial reasons,” Vignarajah said.

The FAQ section of the website indicates that organizations can offer support to sponsors, but individuals must still sign sponsorship forms.

Rogers said she was working on the app for her sister every day since the April 25 launch, but she’s lost track of how many hours she’s spent on it. When she had questions about the requirements, she waited on hold with a hotline for almost an hour each time.

Proving one’s own financial preparedness was also complicated.

The website’s instructions read: “As the person who agrees to support the beneficiary financially, you must demonstrate that you have sufficient income or financial resources to support the beneficiary. Failure to provide proof of sufficient income or financial resources may result in the foreign national’s visa application being denied or deportation from the United States.

But, as Rogers points out, nowhere does the website give a minimum income requirement to sponsor Ukrainians.

“They don’t specify. What is a “sufficient income”? If you provide free housing, food, clothing, what matters? Rogers said.

Meanwhile, her sister and brother-in-law were desperate to leave their small apartment in Poland, a country that has borne the brunt of the refugee crisis in Ukraine, and find a place where they could work and send their daughter to school.

A spokesperson for the Department of Homeland Security said in a statement that the agency “has worked to make the process as easy as possible to ensure that Ukrainians who fled Russia’s unprovoked war of aggression and who meet the required conditions can travel quickly to the United States”.

“As part of this process, DHS carefully screens and vets Ukrainian citizens and their U.S.-based supporters to identify and screen individuals who may pose a threat to the American public, protect against exploitation and abuse and to ensure that supporters are able to provide for the needs of the people they have agreed to help.

The spokesperson also said U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services is working to add more staff to answer questions on an applicant hotline. Since the portal went live, the agency has received about 13,000 applications, the agency said, although it could not say how long the process would take.

Finally, on Wednesday, Rogers said she had submitted the forms to bring her sister to the United States, but now had to repeat the process two more times for her niece and brother-in-law. She has to sponsor each of them individually and fears that if only one or two are approved, they might be faced with the decision to go their separate ways.

Now she wonders if she might have made any mistakes that could prevent one or all of her family members from coming to live with her. She also worries that others are trying to use the same system to get their families to safety.

“I have experience with immigration paperwork and visa forms and even for me it takes a while. What about an ordinary person with no experience? Rogers said.

Olena Kopchak, Svitlana Rogers' sister, and Yana Kopchak, her niece, are hiding in their basement in Mykolaiv, Ukraine, before fleeing to Poland.
Olena Kopchak, Svitlana Rogers’ sister, and Yana Kopchak, her niece, are hiding in their basement in Mykolaiv, Ukraine, before fleeing to Poland.Courtesy of Svitlana Rogers

Unlike the traditional route to bring refugees to the United States, where taxpayers’ money partially offsets the cost of living for the first few months, the Biden administration has chosen a model for Ukrainians fleeing the country’s war with the Russia which only allows those who can be financially supported to come into the country.

Since the launch of the website, it has become the only route for Ukrainians to come to the United States. U.S. Customs and Border Protection is now reversing Ukrainians at the U.S.-Mexico border subjecting them to the same Covid-19 restrictions, known as Title 42, that other nationalities face. For much of March and April, Ukrainians were exempt from Title 42 and were granted humanitarian parole on the southwestern United States border.

As thousands began to take this circuitous and often dangerous route, the Biden administration decided to shut it down and offer the website as the only option.

The Department of Homeland Security said it would review potential sponsors of Ukrainians to ensure they would not seek to exploit or traffic the vulnerable population as they flee the war.

But Rogers said the process appears designed to limit the number of people who will pass the test.

Now that she has submitted her sister’s application, she just has to wait for a response.

“I’m nervous because there are a lot of unknowns: if my income will be enough, if I submitted the application correctly. What if someone doesn’t like my answers? How long will it take to be processed? »


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