Pittsburgh residents ready to welcome fleeing Ukrainians, but quick entry to US still unlikely

Natalya Shisman sits next to her phone. For weeks it hasn’t stopped beeping, buzzing, ringing and chiming.

Those trying to reach Shisman, a services coordinator at Jewish Family and Community Services, want everything from predictions about the end of Russia’s war on Ukraine to instructions on crossing international borders.

Shisman told the Chronicle she didn’t have many answers, but the alerts and calls kept coming.

The steady stream of contacts between friends, family, colleagues and community members highlighted a collective desire to help Ukrainians, but it is also clear, she said, that people want to know when refugees arrive.

Since February 24, more than 2 million people have fled Ukraine — 1.4 million entered Poland, 214,000 went to Hungary and another 165,000 went to Slovakia. The UN reports that up to 4 million people could leave Ukraine as the situation evolves.

Pittsburgh residents keep telling Shisman they’re ready to help. Shisman also said that JFCS is developing a plan to welcome Ukrainians and that when the time comes, she has “no doubt” community members will do what they can to help newcomers. .

the feelings and efforts are laudable, lawyers and immigration experts told the Chronicle, but the reality is that Ukrainians aren’t coming to Pittsburgh anytime soon.

It doesn’t matter whether people are willing to open their homes to orphans and families or whether Pittsburgh residents see this as another chance to help Soviet Jewry. The truth, explained Cathryn Miller-Wilson, executive director of HIAS Pennsylvania, is that there is “no American process that is appropriately addressing the current and immediate needs of Ukrainians.”

Photo of fleeing Ukrainian children taken by Mirek Pruchnicki in Przemyśl, Poland, February 27, 2022. Photo via https://www.flickr.com/photos/mirekpruchnicki/51913859595/

A useful way to understand how Ukrainians might enter the United States is to imagine three groups, the lawyer and HIAS staff said.

The first group is made up of people who are in the United States and have permanent residency, green cards, or are naturalized citizens. These individuals are permitted by U.S. immigration law to request immediate relatives, such as spouses, unmarried minor children, parents and, in certain situations, siblings who are in Ukraine, Miller said. -Wilson.

The problem for people in the first group, however, is that not only do they have to file documents here, but their relatives also have to file documents at the US Embassy in Ukraine. Because that embassy is closed, however, the immediate relative must go to the U.S. Embassy in Frankfurt and file documents there — and those documents could take more than a year to process, Miller-Wilson added. .

The second group of Ukrainians to consider are people in the United States on a temporary visa – people who came here to visit and intended to return home but can no longer. Members of the second group are entitled to Temporary protected status, which allows them to stay here for 18 months and have a work permit. What TPS doesn’t guarantee, however, is a path to citizenship or an ability to apply for next of kin, Miller-Wilson said.

The third category of Ukrainians are the nearly 2 million people who are fleeing and seeking safety elsewhere. At some point, the United States may declare this group “refugeesunder US law. When this happens, and the United States views them as meet certain requirements – including that they are of Special Humanitarian Interest to the United States and can demonstrate that they have been persecuted or fear persecution because of their race, religion, nationality, political views or membership in a particular social group – then those Ukrainians, who have already been welcomed in neighboring European countries, will be allowed to be resettled in the United States. But that’s also only after completing US verification procedures, which include an eight-step process that can take nearly a decade, Miller-Wilson said.

The only other legal mechanism to bring Ukrainians here is the Lautenberg Amendmentwhich was signed into law in 1990 and allows members of historically persecuted religious minorities to enter the United States.

The problem with relying on Lautenberg, Miller-Willson said, is that aside from the fact that Congress has yet to reauthorize Lautenberg for 2022, there’s also the element of time, as those who apply through Lautenberg can wait two to three years for treatment.

People need to understand that “our policies are backward,” she said. The bottom line is that “our immigration laws, from the very beginning, have been and continue to be about exclusion rather than welcome”.

Ukrainian refugees at Berlin Central Station. Photo by Matthias Berg via Flickr at https://www.flickr.com/photos/matthiasberg/51932255303/

Cheryl David, a New York-based immigration attorneytold the Chronicle that over the past week she has fielded calls from people in the United States whose Ukrainian families have traveled to Poland, the Czech Republic and Bulgaria.

“People are freaking out,” David said. “They want to bring their family here, but I tell them there is no quick process to get here other than a visitor visa.”

The situation is infuriating, also because most Americans don’t understand how the US immigration process works, explained Pittsburgh-based attorney and immigration expert Ellen Freeman.

“People think our immigration process is humane, robust and takes situations like war into consideration, but that’s not the case,” she said.

Freeman is particularly sensitive to the current conflict and the legal constraints associated with it. She came to the United States from Odessa, Ukraine in 1993 via the Lautenberg Amendment.

“Everyone thinks Ukrainian citizens can come here like we did. The Lautenberg amendment is no longer part of the appropriations bill — that’s what helped us come here because it documented that Jews in the former Soviet Union were being persecuted as a group,” said Freeman said.

Freeman and David are bothered by the lack of attention these issues receive.

“People assume there is an asylum process for Ukrainians fleeing war to come to the United States, but there is not and the media needs to start talking about it in order to put pressure on the administration to help those overseas,” David said.

Freeman encouraged people to reach out to their representatives in Congress both to reauthorize the Lautenberg Amendment and to address immigration reform in general.

What is happening now, both at American consulates and at the Mexican border, is reminiscent, Freeman said, of what happened more than 80 years ago when Europeans fled, the United States turned them back. and the American Jewish community said “Never again”.

In May 1939, the St. Louis, a transatlantic liner, sailed from Hamburg, Germany to Havana, Cuba, with 937 passengers – almost all of them Jews fleeing Nazi Germany. After the Cuban government refused to allow the St. Louis to land and the United States and Canada refused to admit passengers, the St. Louis returned to Western Europe. Britain accepted 288 of its passengers; the Netherlands took 181; Belgium received 214; 224 have “temporarily taken refuge” in France. Ultimately, 254 of the St. Louis passengers were killed in the Holocaust, according to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

“It’s the same thing,” agreed Miller-Wilson. “People are fleeing and Europe is saying, ‘Come to us.’ We don’t say that. PJC

Adam Reinherz can be contacted at [email protected]

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