Iryna Petrus and her 4-year-old daughter, Polina, are standing in line in Piedras Negras, Mexico at the Texas border. They were exhausted from their journey, and had spent the night at a Baptist Church set up for the Ukrainian refugees attempting to enter the U.S.
It’s been a months-long journey to arrive at this moment—a steering wheel-gripping drive in standstill traffic as they fled their home in Lviv, Ukraine, to Poland under Russian airstrikes. A flight from Warsaw, Poland, to San Miguel, Mexico, where Petrus and her daughter stayed with a friend for three weeks. A 16-hour drive to a Mexican border town about 145 miles southwest of San Antonio, Texas.
Petrus and Polina are thousands of miles from home as they stand in line at the border on March 28, 2022, having embarked on a global journey in a last-ditch attempt to enter the United States through Mexico to flee Russia’s war on Ukraine. Petrus made the decision to leave to protect her daughter; the rest of her family remains in Kyiv. She does not know when she will see them next.
More than 20,000 Ukrainian refugees used Mexico as a transit route to enter the United States between the start of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 and President Joe Biden’s announcement two months later about the Uniting for Ukraine program. Biden’s program offered a streamlined process to provide Ukrainian citizens opportunities to immigrate to the United States through a sponsorship program.
Unlike the United States, travelers to Mexico are not required to have a visa to fly directly into the country. From Mexico, Ukrainians were able to cross the U.S. land border and apply for asylum, humanitarian parole, or a tourist visa. Many Ukrainian refugees were granted humanitarian parole at the border, a provision that would allow them to remain in the United States for one year.
That unconventional path towards U.S. residency excludes migrants from receiving federal benefits available to other Ukrainian refugees who arrived in the United States as part of Biden’s Uniting for Ukraine program. The program, which started April 21, allowed Ukrainians to immigrate to the United States and stay for a two-year parole period.
Migrants like Petrus who fled Ukraine before April 21 find it more difficult to obtain work permits and social security cards than their counterparts in the Uniting for Ukraine program. They are also added to a long queue of migrants from all over the world waiting for extensions on their parole and asylum. For Ukrainians who applied to enter the United States through various statuses at the southern border, their one-year stay in the United States is almost up, leaving them uncertain about where they’ll go next.
When Petrus and her daughter reach the U.S. customs agent at the Puente Camino Real Border Crossing after a few hours in line, she knows nothing of applying for humanitarian parole, a status that would make it much easier for her to gain temporary protected status in the United States. She instead crosses the border with a tourist visa, which gives her authorization to stay in the United States for up to six months with the option to apply for a one-year extension.
Petrus and her daughter were not made aware of different statuses available to them when they crossed the border. She said she wished she could have received advice on what to do.
“I wanted everything to be legal,” Petrus said. “I only knew visa stuff, and I never knew some kind of parole or anything, and border officers never said anything.”
A strained immigration system
The United States immigration system is complicated—it’s meant to discourage people from arriving in the country, said Edmundo Lijo, the director of St. Paul’s immigrant and refugee program.
“Our system is set up to dissuade that kind of migration to the U.S.,” Lijo says. “And the way we do that is to make it really hard to get employment authorization.”
After crossing into Texas, Petrus and her daughter traveled to Minnesota. Petrus spent seven months attempting to gain temporary protected status, which would allow her to work in the United States and remain in the country longer. During that time, she stayed with a host family, unable to work and unsure when she would be able to move into a place of her own.
“I was living like I was in the air,” Petrus said.
She received temporary protected status and a work permit at the end of October, was able to begin her job as a Community Outreach Manager at the Ukrainian American Center, where she had been volunteering before she received her work permit. She and Polina were able to move into an apartment of their own. Temporary protected status allows a refugee to stay in the United States for a year, and requires them to reapply every year. Due to the backlog in temporary protected status applications, Petrus fears she may already need to begin the reapplication process again for next year.
In an immigration system that’s already strained from the influx of migrants from Latin American countries and Afghanistan, it could take months for refugees to receive temporary protected status, humanitarian parole, or a removal proceeding hearing, where a judge determines whether a refugee can remain in the United States.
The greatest increase in the nationality of migrants apprehended at the U.S.-Mexico border in the last three years were Ukrainians and Russians, according to data from the U.S. Customs and Border Protection Agency. These numbers nearly tripled from 2020 to 2022, a stark consequence of the Russian invasion in Ukraine. Between the beginning of the Russian invasion in February and the announcement of Biden’s Uniting for Ukraine program, more than 20,000 Ukrainians traveled to the United States through Mexico by applying for asylum, a tourist visa, or humanitarian parole.
These additional refugees will be added to an already bloated immigration system. In Minnesota and North and South Dakota, nearly 40,000 people are in the middle of a federal review process that will determine whether they can stay in the United States or face deportation. There are seven judges to process those cases. Lijo said some people have been waiting 10 years for an outcome in their case.
“We just keep putting different groups of people into this immigration system, which is very broken and has backlogs and delays across the entire system,” Lijo said. “The system is overwhelmed. There are not enough minds to deal with the problem.”
Husband and wife face different realities
Ukrainian refugees who entered the United States before Biden announced the Uniting for Ukraine program in April 2022 encountered more difficulty receiving immigration statuses and benefits designated for Ukrainians fleeing the Russian invasion.
Tatiana Shuvalova sat cross-legged on the couch in her sister-in-law’s basement in Plymouth, Minnesota, in late October. Her two sons ran down the stairs and jumped into her arms after returning home.
Her youngest son, Lev, 4, has a learning disability and didn’t speak for the first month after the family arrived in the United States last year, Shuvalova said. Her eldest Misha, 8, is constantly asking when they will return home to Ukraine.
Shuvalova, 34, and her sons fled their home northeast of Kyiv when Russia began bombing the capital city. When she read that Mexico had opened their borders for Ukrainian refugees, she saw it as an opportunity to reach her sister-in-law, Olga Karachenets, in Plymouth. She didn’t realize the legal battles that would ensue from her decision to pursue that immigration path.
Shuvalova and her sons crossed from Mexico into the United States at the San Ysidro Border Crossing, just outside of Tijuana, Mexico, on April 1, 20 days before Biden rolled out the Uniting for Ukraine program. It took them 24 hours to cross the border and enter the United States as refugees.
In order to be considered for the Uniting for Ukraine program, refugees had to arrive in the United States after the program was announced. They must also have a U.S. sponsor, often a family member or friend, that will assume financial responsibility for them during their time in the United States. Despite having family in the states, Shuvalova and her sons are ineligible for Uniting for Ukraine benefits because they arrived in Minnesota in early April of 2022 before the program began.
Shuvalova is applying for temporary protected status, but she fears she may not receive it before her refugee status expires in April. While she struggles to figure out a solution that will allow her to stay in the United States, her husband, who arrived in Minnesota in August on the Uniting for Ukraine program, has already received his work authorization permits, social security number, and driver’s license.
“I don’t know what to do. Some people say just wait, maybe something will change,” Shuvalova said. “We paid for a lawyer for his one hour session—$200. And they only say, ‘I understand, just wait, something will change’… It was just $200 for them to tell me to wait.”
The process has been simpler and streamlined for Shuvalova’s husband. Shuvalova fears she will be separated from her family once spring comes.
“I think in the government, they also don’t know what to do with us,” she said.
Walter Anastaszievsky stood in the entryway of the Ukrainian American Community Center in Minneapolis in December after an immigration information session he and volunteers organized. He spoke gently to a Ukrainian woman who just arrived in Minneapolis. He listened intently, laced his arms over his chest, and then guided her through resources for her case.
Sometimes, those resources are slim.
“It’s not like these programs existed a year ago, or even nine months ago, when the war started,” Anastaszievsky said. “It’s being built as we’re doing it.”
Anastazievsky, who was born in Minneapolis, volunteers at the Ukrainian American Community Center and coordinates services for new refugees. He’s a child of Ukrainian refugees displaced after World War II, and has volunteered at the center since 2002.
He said that many services provided by refugee resettlement agencies to Ukrainian refugees are specifically for those in the Uniting for Ukraine program.
“They don’t have the resources to help people who fell through those cracks,” said Anastazievsky. “And that’s part of their plight.”
In November, the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services approved a 90-day work authorization permit for refugees in the Uniting for Ukraine program. That allows recipients to work within the first 90 days of arriving in the country without having to obtain a work permit; the $410 application fee is also waived.
The new rule does not apply to refugees like Iryna Petrus and Tatiana Shuvalova who arrived outside the auspices of the Uniting for Ukraine program.
Petrus understands there are parameters to obtaining services, but thinks there’s also room for flexibility.
“I have nothing to blame on someone,” she said. “I just can advise that the rules sometimes have to be updated. If they don’t work, they have to be updated.”
Employment authorization is a huge hurdle for refugees who are trying to become self-sufficient, said Michelle Rivero, the director of the Office of Immigrant and Refugee Affairs in Minneapolis.
“If a person is allowed to enter the United States, and there is an understanding that the person cannot go back to their home country, promoting self-sufficiency would include ensuring that people have access to employment authorization,” Rivero said.
Lijo, the director of St. Paul’s immigrant and refugee program, said the November work authorization announcement is another “piecemeal” remedy offered by the immigration system that keeps people in temporary statuses. He said the system is inherently broken, and would like to see more long-term solutions that allow refugees to thrive.
Refugees helping each other
It’s a November evening at the Ukrainian American Center. Anastazievsky and Petrus, who began working at the center after receiving her work authorization, are hosting a legal informational session on temporary protected status. Rivero and Lijo will address about 100 Ukrainian refugees in the audience.
Polina sits in the front row, watching the cartoon “Peppa Pig” in Ukrainian on an iPad. Petrus sits beside her. Each time a refugee enters the large community room looking confused, Petrus gets up to greet them gently in Ukrainian.
Speakers from local legal organizations tell the refugees that in order to apply for asylum in the United States, they need to prove they have faced persecution in Ukraine, or would face persecution if they returned.
“I strongly believe someone will hurt me there. But I have no proof,” a Ukrainian woman in a blue jacket named Sritlana Troshyna says in the front row. “What proof do I need?”
It’s one of many questions the volunteers will answer tonight. And the many nights to come, as the rules change and change again.
Petrus and Anastazievsky will stay at the center until everyone’s questions are answered. Then they will get up the next day and do it again.