By Deborah Bloom
(Reuters) -Twice daily, Yuliya Day reaches out by phone from Los Angeles to see how her mother and aunt are doing in the attic they’ve rented in Warsaw. The sisters, 68 and 70 years old, crossed the Polish-Ukrainian border with two cats and few belongings after fleeing Kharkiv.
Between calls, Day resumes her months-long effort to bring her mom and aunt out of Europe and into the United States. The 42-year-old special needs instructor is among six Ukrainian Americans who spoke to Reuters about navigating any route they can find through what they described as the difficult and confusing legal process of bringing in loved ones fleeing war.
The Biden administration expects most Ukrainians whose lives have been upended by Russia’s invasion to stay in Europe. But it said in March it would accept up to 100,000 using existing legal pathways. On April 25, a “Uniting for Ukraine” website went live allowing Ukrainians with American financial sponsors to apply to stay and work in the United States for up to two years under a humanitarian parole program that does not offer a path to citizenship.
Potential sponsors must upload details about their employment and assets. Applicants must pass identity and security checks before they can travel to the United States and be considered for parole.
The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) said on Monday its U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services agency had received more than 19,000 requests from people in the United States wishing to bring in Ukrainians through Uniting for Ukraine.
The department said the first Uniting for Ukraine notices authorizing travel to the United States to seek humanitarian parole were issued late last week and nearly 6,000 Ukrainians were then able to book travel. Ukrainians began arriving to the United States through program on Friday, it added.
The program has given Iryna Bashynskyy of Portland, Oregon, hope. Since February, Bashynskyy has been looking for ways to get her niece, Yana, out of Ukraine. Now, Bashynskyy is gathering documents, including her tax returns and bank statements.
“It’s a hustle,” Bashynskyy said. “But I’ll try to accomplish it.”
Yana asked to only be identified by her first name out of safety concerns.
“It is necessary to somehow escape from here,” Yana, 23, said through a translator from her apartment in Kyiv. “I’m scared about my life, about my future. Because you don’t know where a bomb will drop, at what time, and what will happen.”
New York-based attorney Marina Shepelsky has been receiving hundreds of calls from people with relatives in Ukraine. For the first month and-a-half of the Russian invasion, Shepelsky – a Ukrainian refugee herself whose family fled the Soviet Union in 1989 – was advising them to apply for tourist visas.
“Now I’m kind of discouraging it,” Shepelsky said, saying Uniting for Ukraine offers “a better status.”
Nearly 3,500 Ukrainians were issued temporary U.S. visas for tourism or business in March, up sharply from about 900 in February, according to U.S. State Department statistics. A State Department spokesperson told Reuters tourist visas must be used for temporary stays and are not appropriate for beginning an immigrant or refugee process. The spokesperson did not explain why more Ukrainians got tourist visas in March, but said applications are evaluated case-by-case.
WAITING IN MEXICO
Leonard Mogul is seeking a spousal immigration visa for the woman he married in a non-denominational, 30-minute Zoom wedding in early March. Her wedding band was a ring he had bought her during a New Year’s vacation in Cancun. He had tried earlier for a tourist visa, and was given a visa interview appointment in late September.
“I didn’t want her to be alone in Europe by herself for that long,” said Mogul, who is pursuing the spousal visa and does not plan to apply for Uniting for Ukraine.
Artem Plakhotnyi, a Scottsdale, Arizona-based dance teacher, had been trying for weeks to book an emergency visa appointment for his sister-in-law and her four-year-old twins. Four days after Russian soldiers invaded Ukraine, his cousin and his cousin’s nine-year-old daughter died trying to flee Kharkiv, he said. After repeated attempts, he boarded a flight to Warsaw and then flew with his relatives to Tijuana, where requested and received humanitarian parole last month.
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security said as of April 25, when Uniting for Ukraine went live, Ukrainians at the southwest border who did not have valid visas or pre-authorization to travel to the United States through Uniting for Ukraine may be denied entry.
A Mexican government source told Reuters last week around 530 Ukrainians were at a shelter outside Mexico City, looking for sponsors in the United States. Most had been flown by the Mexican navy from Tijuana. Mexico’s navy confirmed the Ukrainians, among them almost 200 minors, were at the shelter.
Ilona Dluzhynska, a Ukrainian advocate in Mexico, said other Ukrainians have traveled to Mexico City from the border on their own and are in hotels awaiting immigration processing.
Back in Los Angeles, Day is working through the Uniting for Ukraine process, and remotely booking accommodations for her mother and aunt and coordinating veterinary appointments for their cats.
“My mom and aunt don’t speak other languages” than Ukrainian, she said. “They’ve never left Ukraine. They’ve never even been on a plane.”
She said she’s considering flying to Poland.
“Honestly, I just want to be able to hug my mother and cry with her, and not being able to do this – they feel totally lost over there.”
(Reporting by Deborah Bloom in Portland, Oregon; additional reporting by Lizbeth Diaz in Mexico City, Kristina Cooke in San Francisco, Mica Rosenberg in New York and Ted Hesson in Washington; editing by Donna Bryson and Aurora Ellis)