Philly immigration attorney tries to help desperate Ukrainian Americans get family members out of war zone

Ricky Palladino’s phone has been ringing ever since Russia invaded Ukraine.

The Philadelphia immigration attorney has received more than a hundred calls from local Ukrainian Americans desperate to get their family members out of the war and into the United States. He has received at least another hundred calls from Russian families, scared for loved ones protesting war in a homeland where the government has little tolerance for dissent.

“I hear from people every day,” said Palladino, of Palladino’s Center City company, Isbell & Casazza, LLC.

Each case requires study and assessment, and he does all he can to help. But for most people, Palladino has bad news.

Despite the danger to Ukrainians living under Russian bombardment — and the conditions faced 3.2 million people who fled in Poland and neighboring countries – most do not have a fast and legal way to enter the United States, due to federal immigration laws.

Admission through refugee status or family reunification processes takes years.

“I’m a bit desperate here – and they’re desperate there,” said Tayisiya Kovalova, 35, of Warminster.

Her father is in Mariupol, which was a busy southeastern port city a few days ago, and is now known around the world as the target of heavy Russian bombardment which destroyed a theater where hundreds of people had gathered. refugees.

His mother is in the Luhansk region to the east. Communications with the two have recently turned murky.

Kovalova is pursuing family reunification, but fears her parents will be harmed or killed long before it is successful. She is also keen to help a friend, a woman who is family in all but name, who is stuck in Ukraine with her 10-year-old son.

“I can give them a place to live, feed them,” she said. “I would buy them a ticket. I wouldn’t need government money. Just someone to let me go.

President Biden has said the United States will welcome Ukrainian refugees “with open arms,” ​​but his administration has yet to create a structure that would allow that to happen. Meanwhile, aid agencies in Philadelphia and across the country are calling for decisive US action to address the largest and fastest growing refugee crisis in Europe since World War II.

“The United States fails to respond to humanitarian crises – period, the end,” said Cathryn Miller-Wilsonandexecutive director of HIAS Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.

Yes, she said, the United States quickly brought 76,000 Afghan nationals to that country for resettlement amid the withdrawal of American military forces. But that was a special circumstance, she noted, because the evacuees were wartime allies. They were admitted on humanitarian parole.

Usually the process takes years. She knows a woman who was born in a refugee camp, grew up there, married there, and was pregnant with her first child by the time she was finally admitted to the United States.

“I had a permanent stomach ache,” Miller-Wilson said.. “We look at the roughly 3 million people fleeing Ukraine, but that follows Afghanistan and Haiti, which are still happening.”

The world was already experiencing a record refugee crisis, with 26.6 million people driven from their countries by war, persecution or natural disaster. And this figure is exceeded by 48 million people designated as “internally displaced”, meaning they were driven from their homes to other parts of their home country, she noted.

Refugees International President Eric Schwartz has called on the Biden administration to immediately allow the resettlement of at least 100,000 Ukrainians over the next two years. And Krish O’Mara Vignarajah, president and CEO of the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service in Baltimore, said the president must consider “a bolder and more direct role in providing safe haven for those seeking safety in the states.” -United”.

This includes expedited visas for family reunification and the use of so-called parole – permission to enter that is not true immigration status – to admit Ukrainians for urgent humanitarian reasons, she said.

“I don’t know what the United States is waiting for,” said Mark Hetfield, president and CEO of HIAS, which is separate from HIAS Pennsylvania. says ‘American Voices’ host Alicia Menendez on MSNBC. “The time has come for us to act.”

The administration has provided the money – $54 million in humanitarian aid in February and another $53 million last week, announced by Vice President Kamala Harris during her visit to Poland. The House and Senate government funding bill includes billions for emergency food, water, shelter and health care.

The administration granted Temporary Protected Status to Ukrainians already in the United States, which provides protection from deportation as well as an 18-month work permit. Thirteen other countries have this designation, which can be renewed several times.

“A lot of Americans, because they don’t have to deal with the US immigration system, don’t realize how illogical and inflexible the system is,” said Iryna Mazur, Honorary Consul of Ukraine in Philadelphia. and immigration lawyer. specialized in asylum and family reunification.

The administration needs to create a special admissions program, perhaps granting waivers or some kind of simplified humanitarian parole, to get Ukrainians here safe, she said. Many Ukrainians have family and friends in this country who are ready to host and support them, as do Ukrainian churches.

“Every day people are fleeing war,” she said, but “there is no specific program that would allow the admission of displaced Ukrainians.”

Those fleeing Ukraine are mostly women and children, with men between the ages of 18 and 60 not allowed to leave the country.

A refugee, as defined and determined by the United Nations, is a person who has fled war, persecution or political upheaval to seek safety in another country. Most refugees eventually return home once the crisis is over.

But others may spend years in refugee camps, subject to rigorous controls while waiting to be resettled in a third country like the United States. In 2020, only about 2% of the 1.4 million refugees in need of resettlement were actually resettled in a new country, according to the Migration Policy Institute in Washington.

The American selection process takes years. And the government establishes specific criteria, requiring refugees to demonstrate not only that they have been harmed or in danger, but that the harm stems from their race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group.

Refugees must apply for lawful permanent residence, commonly referred to as a green card, one year after arrival. They can apply for citizenship five years after obtaining permanent residency.

Miller-Wilson expects the United States to admit a flood of Ukrainian refugees, “but not as quickly as everyone thinks they will get here.”

It is not because there is no space in the country or space under the law. President Joe Biden raised the annual cap on refugee admissions to 125,000 for fiscal year 2022, a huge increase from former President Trump’s record 15,000.

But the immigration aid agencies that do the resettlement work have been decimated by four years of shrinking caps. Many have laid off staff or ended programs as refugee arrivals and government reimbursements dwindled. This hampered their ability to respond.

“The real answer is a large-scale overhaul of the immigration system,” Miller-Wilson said, and that includes major staff increases at U.S. embassies and agencies that conduct immigration interviews and screen those who hope. enter the United States.

Being able to file a claim means nothing if there is no one to process it, she said.

In the meantime, she said, the United States continues to operate under “exclusion-based” immigration laws and policies, which admit people who break the rules, rather than designing rules. who welcome newcomers and make refusals the exception.

In the absence of major action from the Biden administration, Ukrainians abroad and their families here have pursued two main paths to get people out of harm’s way.

The first is for Ukrainians to apply for a visa to come to this country, usually as a tourist. Many thought they could enter the United States this way and then find a legal way to stay in the country.

But for this visa to be granted, applicants must convince the government that they do not intend to stay. Intention matters. As a result, immigration lawyers say, most applications are denied.

Another possibility is for a U.S. citizen of Ukrainian descent in that country to bring a relative to the United States, usually through what is called an I-130 petition.

But this is limited to immediate family members, including parents, spouses and unmarried children under the age of 21, while siblings and married children are given less preference. The process requires significant paperwork and supporting documents, high fees, and an in-person interview at a designated U.S. embassy or consulate. It can take three to five years.

The United States suspended visa processing in Ukraine, Russia and Belarus, and designated the consulate in Frankfurt, Germany, as the processing center for Ukrainian visa applications. A growing backlog guaranteed long waits.

In Russia, some families have left the country permanently for Finland, Serbia and Turkey. But coming to the United States is difficult if not impossible.

“Today I spoke to a person in the United States who has a child in college in Moscow, and the student and his friends are protesting and facing significant backlash,” Palladino said. “The family here is desperate to get them out. At this crossroads, there is really no way.

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