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Ukrainians fleeing war face onerous process to enter U.S.

Svitlana Rogers’ family has struggled to gather such documentation as vaccination records from shuttered doctors’ offices and a deed on the house they fled when Russia invaded.

Svitlana Rogers had been trying for weeks to bring her sister’s family — who had escaped Ukraine and was now living in Warsaw — to live with her and her family in Princeton, New Jersey.

Her congressional representatives all told her their hands were tied. Then came news from the White House: President Joe Biden announced a new process for Ukrainians to enter the U.S. via sponsorship by Americans.

“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 how much work lay ahead and worried they wouldn’t be able to provide all the documentation that the government required. Not only did Rogers have to prove her own income, she had to show her sister’s family was healthy and on good financial footing as well. 

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

“It took a lot for my sister to call Ukrainian friends and see who has stayed and who could help find their doctors, their vaccination records and their deed,” Rogers said.

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

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

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

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

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

Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, which resettled 25 percent of Ukrainians who were admitted through the U.S. refugee program in the past, now does not qualify to sponsor Ukrainians. And the group’s president and CEO, Krish O’Mara Vignarajah, said they have heard from individuals that “the evidentiary burden is considerable.”

“Vulnerable people who have been displaced through no fault of their own should not be denied safety on financial grounds,” said Vignarajah. 

The website’s FAQ section says organizations may offer support to sponsors, but individuals are still required to sign forms for sponsorship.

Rogers said she worked on the application for her sister every day since the April 25 launch, but she’s lost track of the number of hours she spent on it. When she had questions about the requirements, she waited on hold with a hotline for nearly an hour each time. 

Proving her own financial readiness was complicated, too.

The website’s instructions read: “As the person who agrees to financially support the beneficiary, you must show you have sufficient income or financial resources to support the beneficiary. Failure to provide evidence of sufficient income or financial resources may result in the denial of the foreign national’s application for a visa or his or her removal from the United States.”

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

“They don’t clarify. What is ‘sufficient income?’ If you are providing free housing, food, clothes, what counts?” Rogers said.

Meanwhile, her sister and brother-in-law were growing desperate to leave their small apartment in Poland, a country that has borne the brunt of Ukraine’s refugee crisis, 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 streamlined as possible to ensure Ukrainians who fled Russia’s unprovoked war of aggression and who qualify are able to expeditiously come to the United States.”

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

The spokesperson also said U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services is working on adding more employees to field questions on a hotline for applicants. Since the portal went live, the agency has received approximately 13,000 applications, the agency said, though it cannot specify how long the process will take. 

Olena Kopchak, Svitlana Rogers’ sister, and Yana Kopchak, her niece, hide in their basement in Mykolayiv, Ukraine before escaping to Poland.
Olena Kopchak, Svitlana Rogers’ sister, and Yana Kopchak, her niece, hide in their basement in Mykolayiv, Ukraine before escaping to Poland.Courtesy Svitlana Rogers

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

Now she wonders if she may have made mistakes that could keep one or all of her family members from coming to live with her. She also worries about others trying to use the same system to bring their families to safety. 

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

Unlike the traditional route for bringing refugees to the United States, where taxpayer money partially offsets living cost for the first few months, the Biden administration chose a model for Ukrainians fleeing the country’s war with Russia that only allows those who can be supported financially to come to enter the country.

Since the website launched, it became the only pathway for Ukrainians to come to the United States. U.S. Customs and Border Protection is now turning around Ukrainians at the U.S.-Mexico border by subjecting them to the same Covid-19 restrictions, known as Title 42, that other nationalities face. For much of March and April, Ukrainians were not subject to Title 42 and were given humanitarian parole at the U.S. southwest border. 

As thousands began to come through that circuitous and often dangerous route, the Biden administration moved to shut it down and offer the website as the only option.

The Department of Homeland Security said it would vet potential sponsors of Ukrainians to be sure they would not seek to exploit or traffic the vulnerable population as they escape war. 

But Rogers said the process seems designed to limit the number who will pass the test.

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

“I’m nervous as there are lots 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 process?”