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Ukrainians cross U.S.-Mexico border into life of uncertainty

Humanitarian parole gives migrants from Ukraine few options other than waiting

Adel Kuchik (right) with a member of the Vitovsky family after arriving in Houston, Texas Handout

Ukrainians cross U.S.-Mexico border into life of uncertainty

When Adel Kuchik, her fiancé Michael, and her brother arrived at the U.S.-Mexico border on April 6, they were given a number: 2,809—the number of Ukrainian families waiting to cross into the United States from Tijuana, Mexico. They were told it would take three days. Volunteers at the border provided the bedraggled travelers with food, water, and a place to sleep. But sleep was difficult in the crowded gymnasium littered with mattresses. The cries of children echoed throughout the building.

Adel, 20, worried they would be separated from her 14-year-old brother Maxim because of an anti–human trafficking rule that requires adults to prove they are the legal guardian of a minor. Adel didn’t have proof beyond permission from her parents and the same last name. “He was so scared,” she said. When a woman told her that people with children usually had less trouble at the Mexicali crossing 2½ hours down the road, they loaded into an Uber. Her brother had one large suitcase. Adel and Michael, 19, carried small duffel bags. The rest of her belongings are still in Kyiv, where she was studying journalism.

Passing a long line of entry-seekers in Mexicali, they joined a separate line for Ukrainians. They waited only 30 minutes. Border agents took pictures and fingerprints and granted them one year of humanitarian parole indicated by a date stamped in their passports—April 6, 2023. That’s the day they have to leave the country.

Adel, Michael, and Maxim are among thousands of Ukrainians who have received humanitarian parole at the Mexican border. Though parole provides one year of protection for Ukrainians fleeing war, once they enter the United States, many lack access to employment, public benefits, and a way to extend their stay if necessary.

On March 11, U.S. Customs and Border Protection issued a memo encouraging border agents to exempt Ukrainians from the pandemic expulsion policy, Title 42. A couple of weeks later, the Biden administration announced that the United States would welcome up to 100,000 Ukrainian refugees using “the full range of legal pathways.” An asylum case backlog of 1.6 million cases with an average wait time of 4½ years limits those pathways. U.S. border officials processed nearly 10,000 undocumented Ukrainians between Feb. 1 and April 6.

Many of those Ukrainians have been granted humanitarian parole. (The exact numbers have not been published yet.) U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services gives humanitarian parole to undocumented immigrants on a case-by-case basis for “urgent humanitarian reasons or significant public benefit.” Parolees are temporarily protected from deportation and cannot qualify for permanent status. Neither do migrants admitted under humanitarian parole qualify for the public benefits given to people who apply for asylum or are resettled as refugees.

When the war broke out in Ukraine, Adel and Michael were on their way from Kyiv to the city of Odesa for a weekend getaway. It was Feb. 24. Her dad called and said the Russians were attacking. Don’t go to Odesa, he warned, they are already there. Instead, they raced across the border to Moldova. Two days later, Michael proposed. “We were afraid we would lose each other,” Adel said. As he got down on one knee, she cried. The reality of their situation hit her: “It was a strange moment.” After a trip to the Slovakian border to pick up Maxim, Adel and Michael drove to Lithuania. Soon after, her mom, who is divorced from her father, joined them in Lithuania, where she is still staying with their cousin. Adel’s dad is in the occupied Ukrainian city of Melitópol caring for his parents. He can’t leave the country because of the draft.

After fleeing to Lithuania, Adel, Michael, and Maxim applied for tourist visas at the American Embassy to stay with the Vitovskys, the host family Adel stayed with while studying in Texas during high school in 2017 and 2018. Her host mom, Melanie, sent them the money—raised through lemonade stands and craft sales—for the 480 euro fee. But no appointments were available. “We prayed for God to open new doors for us,” Adel said. That’s when they heard that the United States was admitting Ukrainians without visas at the Mexican border.

Back in Texas, Melanie searched frantically for flights. Because they did not have transit visas, Adel and the others could not fly through Canada, London, or the United States, and alternative routes were scarce and incredibly expensive. It was 2:30 a.m. when she found a flight on Turkish Airlines. But one of the legs was full. Frustrated and discouraged, she prayed, “Lord, if this is Your will for me, open the door.” She explained the problem to her husband, Justin, and tried again. The booking went all the way through.

Adel wore her only pair of footwear—pink Crocs now covered in dust—from Vilnius, Lithuania, to Istanbul, Turkey, and finally to the Mexicali border crossing. A few more flights later, they arrived at Hobby Airport in Houston, where the Vitovskys and their 12-year-old twin boys welcomed them with a blue and yellow sign that read “Welcome home Adel.” That first night, Justin made Adel’s favorite meal from her days as a host student: tacos with HEB taco seasoning. When I spoke with Adel, it had been five days since they made it to the Vitovksys’ small home in Cypress, a city outside Houston. She said they had mostly recovered from jet lag.

Now, Adel and Michael want to work. When they called USCIS about getting employment authorization, the agency told them they could apply—the application costs $410 and can take six months to process due to backlogs—but they would most likely be rejected because of their temporary status. Neither can they get Social Security numbers or obtain a driver’s license. (Melanie said Maxim will be allowed to attend school, however.)

“I just want to make some money to provide for my family and pay for food at least,” Adel told me. “If not for Melanie and Justin, we would be on the streets.” 

Other Ukrainians face similar challenges on parole. Accepting people for a year of parole without work authorization or any social benefits does not qualify as protection, argues Danilo Zak, a policy analyst for the National Immigration Forum. “Parole is not the best option under these circumstances,” he said. “It’s an indictment of our refugee resettlement system.” The COVID-19 pandemic, Trump administration refugee rollbacks, and the Biden administration’s hesitancy to raise the refugee ceiling resulted in record low resettlements of refugees last year. The overburdened and disorganized system is unprepared for another influx. Last year, the administration announced that Afghans on humanitarian parole are eligible for benefits through the Office of Refugee Resettlement. Zak argued the Biden administration should provide that exception for Ukrainians, as well.

And what happens to people like Adel after a year? Ukrainians on parole could apply for re-parole or join the backlogged asylum queue, Zak said, or the Department of Homeland Security could give Temporary Protected Status to parolees. Congress could also pass an adjustment act to grant Ukrainians the right to become lawful permanent residents, like the legislation passed for Cubans, people from Southeast Asia, and Iraqis. Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services has urged members of Congress to propose an “Afghan Adjustment Act.”

“It’s so upsetting that we cannot get any help or just instructions about what we should do now,” said Adel. She and Michael plan to marry as soon as possible. Her parents told her they can have a small party later and do another ceremony. “As a girl you dream about this all your life,” she said. “I’ve just got to remind myself that [God] is walking with us through all of these things.”

—WORLD has corrected this story to reflect that Maxim can attend public school while on humanitarian parole.

Addie Offereins

Addie is a WORLD reporter who often writes about poverty fighting and immigration. She is a graduate of Westmont College and the World Journalism Institute. She lives in Austin, Texas, with her husband, Ben.

You sure do come up with exciting stuff to read, know, and talk about. —Chad

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