Ukrainians Seeking Shelter With Bay Area Families Face Closed Doors, Red Tape
SAN FRANCISCO (KPIX) -- The biggest refugee crisis since World War II is unfolding in front of the eyes of the world.
About three million Ukrainian nationals, mostly women, children and the elderly, have fled their homes since the brutal Russian invasion. Now, many in the Bay Area want their Ukrainian relatives to find safe haven here.
Stacey and her husband Bohden live in San Francisco. They asked KPIX not to use their last name.
Bohden's parents, his sister and her 5-year-old boy fled their home in central Ukraine as the bombings intensified. It was a harrowing journey.
"It took them three and a half days to get to the border and it was a seventeen-hour line at the border to cross it," Bohden said.
Now, the family is stranded in Bulgaria.
"They're very courageous people -- they are very strong people and we just hope that we can get them here," Stacey said.
Bohden's parents have "B2" tourist visas but their daughter and her son do not.
In the middle of this catastrophic war, with their lives in danger, a major disappointment has unfolded.
"There's no clear path to get a visa here and to come," Bohden explained.
KPIX heard about a similar situation with 34-year-old Olha Korol and her newborn baby Severin.
Olha lives in Kyiv. When the bombings worsened, she and her mother fled with Olha's baby, taking a bus then a train to Poland. They left Ohla's husband and father behind so they could help defend the city. The goal for the women: to join extended family in San Jose where the baby would be safe.
Olha recounted a terrifying journey to the border.
"I could hear the military planes going over the train and all the way I'm texting my uncle who is in San Jose. He was calming me down because I was afraid," she told KPIX.
Olha and her mom got as far as Frankfurt. They went to the Ukrainian embassy where staff placed the baby's photo in Olha's passport, stamping it and instructing Olha to show it along with the baby's birth certificate to border authorities.
When they tried to board a flight to SFO, they were stopped.
"They said the baby must have visa," Olha said.
She and her mother have passports and tourist visas but her baby did not. They stayed for as long as they could in Frankfurt, frantically trying to get an appointment at the U.S. Embassy. They are stunned that it will take weeks before they can get an appointment. They ran out of money for lodging and ended up flying to Cyprus to stay with friends as they wait for the U.S. to determine their fate.
For the unforeseen future, they are stuck in a foreign country.
"We want just to be with our families, until the war is over," Olha said.
Immigration experts tell KPIX that, even with a tourist visa, it won't be easy.
"Our current system of immigration laws has severe limitations and some of that include being responsive and nimble in times of crisis," said senior immigration attorney Amanda Bhuket. Bhuket works with the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area.
She says unless there is a major change in U.S. law, it's going to be very difficult for individuals to quickly bring family members to the Bay Area on any kind of visa - including one designated for tourists.
"There will most likely be a presumption that they intend to come to the United States and remain," Bhuket said.
The U.S. State Department says Ukrainians who cannot prove they're really tourists won't get a visa.
Tourist visas are only granted for up to six months and, if you're here on a tourist visa, you can't work.
Bhuket says Ukrainians can apply for refugee status in neighboring countries but the resettlement process can take years.
"The irony here being these refugee and human rights laws were established in response to the holocaust and the exodus of refugees from eastern Europe and yet we find ourselves in a situation that echoes in many ways that time," Bhuket said.
According to Reuters, only seven Ukrainians have been resettled in the U.S. since March 1.
Bay Area families and those they love don't want to lose hope.
"We will be here with open arms. We just need to somehow figure out a way to get them here," Stacey said.
"Pray for peace, pray for this to be over," Olha lamented.
KPIX contacted several federal lawmakers about this developing crisis.
The offices of California's two U.S. senators, Dianne Feinstein and Alex Padilla as well as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi responded, saying they will continue to assist constituents who submit requests related to visas but it's unclear what can be done.
As to how many Ukrainians can apply for refugee status: under the Biden Administration, there are currently 125,000 refugee slots available globally. Of those, 10,000 are set aside for all of Europe and Central Asia -- a region which includes Ukraine. Those numbers could be increased but, once again, the process is painfully slow.
As for asylum: The U.S. / Mexico border has been closed to most asylum seekers under a pandemic-era policy known as Title 42. It was put in place by the previous administration and has not been changed by the current administration.
That said, reports show a growing number of Ukrainians and Russians are traveling to Mexico, buying cheap cars and then driving across the border to claim asylum. Not all get in. Those who arrive by foot, we're told, get turned away.
KPIX also heard that some Ukrainians were granted what's called "humanitarian parole" and are allowed entry for up to a year.
For Ukrainians nationals who are already in the United States: If you were here before March 1, you qualify for "Temporary Protection Status" or TPS for short. TPS allows you to stay in the country for 18 months and you can work.
Some Ukrainians who arrived after March 1 on tourist visas are supposed to return home after six months.
U.S. State Department Fact Sheet for Ukrainian Nationals
Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area
RESPONSES FROM THE OFFICES OF CALIFORNIA CONGRESS MEMBERS
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi:
Speaker Pelosi takes great pride in serving her constituents through casework, and we will continue to assist constituents who submit requests related to visas. Russia's unprovoked war against Ukraine has created a heartbreaking humanitarian catastrophe, and the Speaker remains committed to working with the Administration and our Allies to help the millions of Ukrainian refugees forced to flee their homes.
Senator Dianne Feinstein:
The senator's office is working to ensure constituents and their family members in Ukraine and Eastern Europe get the help they need. This includes working with the State Department and the Department of Homeland Security as we continue to monitor the situation in Ukraine.
Senator Alex Padilla:
I am grateful the Biden administration heeded our calls to designate Ukraine for TPS and protect Ukrainian nationals in the United States from deportation. I will continue to urge the Administration to work with allies in the region to provide refugee and humanitarian assistance to Ukrainians fleeing Russian aggression and I am committed to helping constituents navigate requests for humanitarian assistance from the Departments of State and Homeland Security.
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