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Ukrainians, advocates agonize over sluggish refugee response by U.S.

Maryana Berezhnytska didn’t think she would ever see atrocities like the ones Russian troops are purported to have committed against civilians amid the war in Ukraine, where she lives with her daughters, 9 and 11.

“I never thought that there would be a war in our country and that my children would live in fear,” she said, speaking from Lviv last week through Facebook Messenger.

Berezhnytska and her children are afraid to go outside during the day, and even more fearful at night, tortured by the sounds of sirens.

“There is no normal life for them. Like all children in our country,” she said. “All the time we are afraid.”

Berezhnytska would like to flee Ukraine, joining the more than 4.3 million people who have already left since Russia invaded on Feb. 24. Ideally, she and her girls would relocate to New York, where her mother lives.

Both were elated when President Joe Biden announced plans to welcome up to 100,000 Ukrainians and others fleeing the country into the United States.

But their initial excitement has waned as the announcement has been slow to materialize.

“I was very happy when I heard about the opportunity to go to my mother, but it turned out that it was unrealistic for a while,” she said. “I don’t know how long to wait, but I’m afraid it’s too late.”

Advocacy groups and refugee resettlement agencies said key details are still missing on how and when the U.S. will allow more Ukrainians into the country, including reuniting with families living in the United States.

The Biden administration said in late March that the Ukrainians and others would be allowed in to the U.S. through a range of pathways, including the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program, nonimmigrant and immigrant visas, and other means. There will also be a focus on welcoming Ukrainians who have family members in the U.S, according to the administration. Additional details are expected in the coming weeks.

“This is not something that Poland or Romania or Germany should carry on their own,” Biden said in Brussels last month. “This is an international responsibility.”

NBC News reported last month that it was unclear what authority Biden would use to expedite the entry of Ukrainians. The White House was considering both humanitarian parole, a presidential authority that does not guarantee permanent legal status, and the Priority-2 designation program, which has been used for Afghans and others escaping war zones, they said.

Ukrainians who are seeking asylum in the United States gather in a city government shelter in Tijuana, Mexico, on Apr. 6.Mario Tama / Getty Images

“At a time when a quarter of the population is displaced, the 100,000 commitment can’t be aspirational,” said Krish O’Mara Vignarajah, the president and CEO of the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, a refugee resettlement agency. “It needs to be the bare minimum of what we do. So, the question is, what comes next?”

Other outstanding questions include whether the commitment is time-bound, what exact pathways the administration will use and how, and will there be a focus on certain populations, among others, she said.

Naomi Steinberg, vice president of policy and advocacy of HIAS, a Jewish American humanitarian organization, said one of the groups “we think should not be forced or should not have to wait in Europe are those with family reunification cases, because clearly they have loved ones here who desperately want them to come.”

“We need to make sure that these family reunification cases come through the U.S. refugee resettlement program,” she said. “We want the administration to rely heavily on resettlement versus humanitarian parole,” which does not confer a path to lawful permanent residency or a path to citizenship.

The Department of Homeland Security did not immediately respond to request for comment.

The plea for a more definitive plan comes as new gruesome details about Russia’s war in Ukraine have been revealed.

Earlier this week, grisly images emerged of slain civilians throughout the city of Bucha, and on Friday, Ukrainian officials said at lesat 50 people, including children, were killed when two rockets hit a railway station in Kramatorsk in the Donetsk region as thousands were trying to evacuate.

More than 1,600 civilians have been killed and more than 2,200 injured since Russia’s attack began, the United Nations said Friday, adding that it believes the “actual figures are considerably higher.” This week, the mayor of the besieged port city of Mariupol said at least 5,000 people have died since Russia invaded.

Residents walk in Bucha, Ukraine
Residents walk amid debris and destroyed Russian military vehicles on a street in Bucha, Ukraine, on Wednesday.Chris McGrath / Getty Images

As some Ukrainians continue to wait in Ukraine or other parts of Europe, others have resorted to attempting to cross the U.S. southern border to claim asylum — a dangerous process that also does not guarantee permanent protections.

“When families are fleeing a war, receiving protection shouldn’t be means-tested,” Vignarajah said. “I think that’s where we’re gravely concerned.” 

Advocates said the administration should also be doing more to address the immigrants who have been waiting to enter the U.S. after fleeing violence in their home countries.

Last week, the administration announced that families and single adult asylum-seekers who had been turned away at the southern border since the start of the pandemic will have their chance to enter the U.S. and make an asylum claim starting May 23.

There are currently thousands of migrants living in poor conditions and camps in northern Mexico after being turned back from crossing under the rule, known as Title 42.

Vignarajah said that “inequity is inappropriate anywhere,” especially when “it comes to life and death decisions.”

She said that new U.S. Refugee Admissions Program data showed that the U.S. resettled only 12 Ukrainians in March.

“Clearly, there is more work to do,” she said.

In Ukraine, Berezhnytska said she wants people “to know that our children are deprived of childhood and that we just want to save their lives, that they are innocent of what is being done.”

“We are not asking for money or things. We are asking for help to reunite with a family that will take care of us,” she said. “Just give us this chance as soon as possible.”

Her mother, Lidiya Volosyanko, a sixth grade teacher at a Ukrainian school in New York City, said through tears, “I hope that I can save their lives, for my daughter, for my grandkids.”

“I pray every single day,” she said.

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