A Philly immigration lawyer tries to help Ukrainian Americans desperate to get family members out of the war zone

Ricky Palladino’s phone hasn’t stopped ringing since Russia invaded Ukraine.

The Philadelphia immigration lawyer has gotten more than a hundred calls from local Ukrainian Americans desperate to get family members out of the war and into the United States. He’s received at least another hundred pleas from Russian families, frightened for loved ones who are protesting against the war in a homeland where the government tolerates little dissent.

“I’ve been hearing from individuals every single day,” said Palladino, of the Center City firm of Palladino, Isbell & Casazza, LLC.

Each case requires study and evaluation, and he does all he can to help. But for most people, Palladino has bad news.

Despite the danger to Ukrainians living under Russian bombardment — and the conditions faced by 3.2 million people who have fled to Poland and surrounding countries — most have no quick, legal way to enter the United States, because of federal immigration laws.

Admission through refugee or family-reunification processes takes years.

“I’m kind of desperate here — and they’re desperate there,” said Tayisiya Kovalova, 35, of Warminster.

Her father is in Mariupol, which a few days ago was a bustling southeast port city, and now is known worldwide as the target of fierce Russian bombing that destroyed a theater where hundreds had taken shelter.

Her mother is in the Luhansk region, in the east. Communications with both recently went dark.

Kovalova is pursuing family reunification, but fears her parents could be hurt or killed long before that’s successful. She’s also anxious to help a friend, a woman who is family in all but name, who is stuck in Ukraine with her 10-year-old son.

“I can give them a place to live, feed them,” she said. “I would buy them a ticket. I would not need any money from the government. Just someone to let me do it.”

President Biden says the U.S. will welcome Ukrainian refugees “with open arms,” but his administration has yet to create a structure that would allow that to happen. Meanwhile, humanitarian agencies in Philadelphia and across the country cry out for decisive U.S. action to address Europe’s largest, fastest-growing refugee crisis since World War II.

“The U.S. is not responsive to humanitarian crises — period, the end,” said Cathryn Miller-Wilson, executive director of HIAS Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.

Yes, she said, the U.S. quickly brought 76,000 Afghan nationals to this country for resettlement amid the withdrawal of U.S. military forces. But that was a special circumstance, she noted, because the evacuees were war-time allies. They were admitted under humanitarian parole.

Usually, the process takes years. She knows one woman who was born in a refugee camp, grew up there, got married there, and was pregnant with her first child by the time she was finally admitted to the U.S.

“I’ve had a permanent stomachache,” Miller-Wilson said. “We’re looking at the 3 million or so fleeing Ukraine, but this is on the heels of Afghanistan and Haiti, which are still happening.”

The world already was experiencing a record refugee crisis, with 26.6 million people forced from their countries by war, persecution or natural disaster. And that figure is surpassed by 48 million people designated as “internally displaced,” meaning they were driven from their homes to other parts of their homelands, she noted.

Refugees International President Eric Schwartz called on the Biden administration to immediately authorize the resettlement of at least 100,000 Ukrainians during the next two years. And Krish O’Mara Vignarajah, president and CEO of Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service in Baltimore, said the president must consider “a bolder and more direct role in offering safe haven to those seeking safety in the U.S.”

That includes expedited visas for family reunification and the use of what’s called parole — a permission to enter that’s not an actual immigration status — to admit Ukrainians on urgent humanitarian grounds, she said.

“I don’t know what the United States is waiting for,” Mark Hetfield, the president and CEO of HIAS, which is separate from HIAS Pennsylvania, told “American Voices” host Alicia Menendez on MSNBC. “The time for us to act is now.”

The administration has provided money — $54 million in humanitarian aid in February, and $53 million more last week, announced by Vice President Kamala Harris during her visit to Poland. The House and Senate government-funding bill includes billions for emergency food, water, shelter, and health care.

The administration granted Temporary Protected Status to Ukrainians already in the United States, which provides protection from deportation along with an 18-month work permit. Thirteen other countries have that designation, which can be repeatedly renewed.

“A lot of Americans, because they don’t have to deal with the U.S. immigration system, they don’t realize how illogical and inflexible the system is,” said Iryna Mazur, the honorary consul of Ukraine in Philadelphia, and an immigration lawyer who specializes in asylum and family reunification.

The administration must create a special admissions program, maybe a granting of waivers or some type of streamlined humanitarian parole, to get Ukrainians to safety here, she said. Many in Ukraine have family and friends in this country who are willing to house and support them, as are Ukrainian churches.

“Every day people are running from the war,” she said, but “there’s no specific program that would allow the admission of Ukrainian displaced people.”

Those fleeing Ukraine are mostly women and children, as men between 18 and 60 are barred from leaving the country.

A refugee, as defined and determined by the United Nations, is someone who has fled war, persecution or political upheaval to seek safety in another country. Most refugees eventually go home once the crisis has ended.

But others can spend years in refugee camps, undergoing rigorous vetting as they await resettlement in a third country such as the United States. In 2020 only about 2% of 1.4 million refugees needing resettlement were actually relocated to a new nation, according to the Migration Policy Institute in Washington.

The U.S. screening process takes years. And the government sets specific criteria, requiring refugees to demonstrate not just that they were hurt or in danger, but that the harm sprang from their race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group.

Refugees must apply for legal permanent residency, commonly known as a green card, a year after their arrival. They can seek citizenship five years after they gain permanent residence.

Miller-Wilson expects the United States to admit a tide of Ukrainian refugees, “but not as quickly as everyone else thinks they’re going to get here.”

It’s not because there’s not space in the country or room under the law. President Joe Biden raised the annual cap on refugee admissions to 125,000 for fiscal 2022, an enormous increase from former President Trump’s record low of 15,000.

But the immigration-aid agencies that carry out the work of resettlement have been decimated by four years of shrunken caps. Many laid off staff or ended programs as refugee arrivals and government reimbursements fell. That’s hampered their ability to respond.

“The real answer is a broad-based, overhauling of the immigration system,” Miller-Wilson said, and that includes big staffing increases at the U.S. embassies and agencies that conduct immigration interviews and vet those hoping to enter the United States.

The ability to file an application means nothing if there’s no one there to process it, she said.

In the meantime, she said, the U.S. continues to operate under immigration laws and policies “that are built on exclusion,” that admit people who are exceptions to the rules, rather than designing rules that welcome newcomers and make denials the exception.

Absent major action by the Biden administration, Ukrainians overseas and their families here have pursued two main avenues to get people out of danger.

The first is for Ukrainians to seek a visa to come to this country, typically as a tourist. Many thought they could enter the U.S. that way and then find a legal means to stay in the country.

But for that visa to be granted, applicants must persuade the government that they don’t intend to stay. Intent matters. As a result, immigration attorneys say, most applications are being denied.

Another avenue is for a Ukrainian American citizen in this country to file to bring a relative to the United States, usually through what’s called an I-130 petition.

But that’s limited to immediate family members including parents, spouses, and unmarried children under 21, while siblings and married children get lesser preference. The process requires substantial paperwork and supporting documents, expensive fees, and an in-person interview at a designated U.S. embassy or consulate. It can take three to five years.

The U.S. has suspended visa processing in Ukraine, Russia and Belarus, and named the consulate in Frankfurt, Germany, as the processing hub for Ukrainian visa applications. A growing backlog has guaranteed long waits.

In Russia some families have left the country for good, heading to Finland, Serbia and Turkey. But coming to the United States is difficult or impossible.

“Today I talked to a person in the U.S. who has a child in college in Moscow, and the student and friends are protesting, and facing significant backlash,” Palladino said. “The family here is desperate to get them out. At this junction there really isn’t a way.”


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