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News / Northwest

Tenuous status for Ukrainians who fled to U.S. as war enters third year: ‘You feel like you’re sitting with a bomb’

Since early 2022, over 2,200 Ukrainians have come to Spokane County

By Emry Dinman, The Spokesman-Review
Published: February 25, 2024, 12:45pm

SPOKANE — Yuliia Boicheva and her family had just poured their savings into an Odesa condo a short 20-minute walk from the Black Sea where her teenage son liked to swim. It was close enough that they could smell the ocean air from their new home. They had just begun to plan to remodel when Russia invaded their country.

Within months, the family sought refuge in the United States through Uniting for Ukraine, a streamlined temporary resettlement program introduced by the Biden administration and supported by local nonprofit Thrive International, sponsored by a relative who has lived in the Spokane area for decades.

They’ve made a home here. In the interim, Odesa, a major port city, has been the target of repeated shelling and airstrikes by Russia, which first attacked military and industrial infrastructure but has since destroyed historical and residential buildings, including one just blocks from the Boichevas’ former home, killing a family inside, Yuliia said.

Now, as the conflict grinds into its third year and America’s initially momentous support for Ukraine’s defense becomes increasingly politicized, Yuliia and her family find themselves facing a new uncertainty: the pending expiration in May of their parole in the U.S. through Uniting for Ukraine, which authorized them to stay and work in this country for only two years.

As of now, there is no clear path forward for Ukrainian refugees like the Boichevas to extend their stay in the U.S., though the war in their homeland shows no signs of stopping. Yuliia checks every day to see if there has been an update for cases like hers and says she is willing to go through whatever steps are necessary to stay in the U.S., at least until the war is over.

“The government, for me, it looks like they’re waiting until the last couple of days to (create that process),” she said. “You feel like you’re sitting with a bomb, and we’re just waiting with this bomb.”

Predictable uncertainty

Yuliia’s family is not alone. As of December, over 170,000 Ukrainians have entered the U.S. through the same program, many of whom came in the first wave of refugees along with the Boichevas.

When the invasion began in February 2022, thousands of Ukrainians fled to Mexico, hoping to seek asylum by crossing the border into the U.S. This initial wave of refugees, around 23,000, was granted authorization to enter and work in the U.S. for a year.

By April 21, 2022, President Joe Biden announced the U4U program, creating a quicker temporary resettlement process for Ukrainians and others displaced by Russia’s invasion as long as they applied abroad and received permission before trying to enter the United States. Biden committed to welcoming at least 100,000 into the United States, and the U4U program allowed them to stay and work for two years.

Since early 2022, over 2,200 Ukrainians have come to Spokane County through various programs. Many of them entered the U.S. via U4U.

Programs like U4U allow temporary legal residence in the U.S. but typically do not come with any of the federal services granted for refugee resettlement or a pathway to apply for permanent residency.

The Boichevas arrived in May, selling their car so they could afford the plane tickets. An uncle was their sponsor for the program, and Thrive helped them resettle in the area. Yuliia now works as Thrive’s assistant to the general manager, helping connect other refugees from Slavic countries, the Middle East and elsewhere to needed services.

They’ve made a home, first in an apartment provided by Thrive and now in a rental home in Spokane Valley. Their son enrolled at Lewis and Clark High School, staying there after the family moved out of the city because he liked his teachers and had made friends, despite some awkwardness and discomfort speaking English, his third language, Yuliia said.

In Odessa, Yuliia had earned an engineering degree and worked a logistics job for a shipping company. Now she has a stable, if busy, life in Spokane, and her son hopes to one day work in shipping logistics like his mother once did. But with three months left before their parole in the country expires, she now worries that she could be thrown into legal limbo, lose her work authorization and be forced to return to Ukraine.

“I have a job, and my son, he is a good student in school,” she said. “I don’t want to begin my life again, because twice I did that. I want to continue to live here and build my life.”

She added that she planned to speak soon with an attorney about the family’s options.

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It’s likely that the government will eventually allow an extension for the U4U program, said Julia Gelatt, associate director of the U.S. immigration policy program at the Migration Policy Institute, an independent D.C.-based think tank.

She pointed to the first wave of Ukrainian refugees who crossed the U.S.-Mexico border before the U4U program was launched. They were initially offered parole in the U.S. for a year, which was extended another year at the last minute. Afghan refugees who came to America after the U.S. withdrew from their country in 2021 also were initially offered two-year stays, which were later renewed.

“Unfortunately in both of those cases, the government came, to a stressful extent, as close to the deadline as possible,” Gelatt said. “It would be nice if we could say today, ‘Here’s the process,’ so you don’t need to have a gap in their status.”

It’s a relatively common predicament of those who have come to the country through similar parole programs, a looming timeline that can usually at best only be extended, Gelatt noted. Congress could pass an adjustment act — as it did after the rise of Fidel Castro in Cuba, as well as after the Vietnam and Iraq wars — that would create a path for immigration parolees to apply for a green card. The Afghan Adjustment Act was introduced to Congress in 2021, and the Ukrainian Adjustment Act was introduced in 2023; both have stalled.

“This was initially envisioned as a temporary solution for a temporary crisis,” Gelatt said. “As the war drags on, as people are building their lives in the U.S., you have to ask how temporary this war is going to be.”

In the meantime, if the Ukrainian parole program isn’t extended before it expires for those in the U.S. temporarily, their ability to legally work in the country could lapse. Ukrainians who arrived beginning in February 2022 through the Mexican border did not have their parole extended until March 13, 2023, and that extension could lapse in weeks. The first who applied through the U4U program could have their work authorization lapse weeks later.

“This is one small example of how our entire immigration system has continued to be approached with a Band-Aid response from the federal government for years and years and years, which just prolongs the overall dysfunction,” said Mark Finney, executive director of Thrive International.

On Friday night, as the sun was rising half a world away in Ukraine on the second anniversary of the invasion, more than 100 people from different churches came together in a darkened room to worship under the banner of The Well International Ministries. Many had fled the war, while others had long called America home, but all had come to pray for peace and a brighter future for Ukraine.