Ukrainian refugees face long waits for visas | national


WASHINGTON — Andrey Plaksin, a Ukrainian-born immigration attorney based in Miami, wakes up every morning at 6 a.m. and listens to the news in preparation for another long day of receiving calls and emails from potential clients, all hoping to get their loved ones out of Eastern Europe.

A solo practitioner who is fluent in Russian, Plaksin has spent 12 hours a day since Russian forces invaded Ukraine trying to deal with a recent influx of immigration applications from Americans whose relatives hope to flee the region.

“Last week was extremely stressful,” Plaksin said. “I feel like I’m actually, you know, sitting with these people in bomb shelters every day.”

Two million people fled Ukraine last week after Moscow invaded the country, often heading for neighboring countries such as Poland, Hungary, Moldova and Romania.

Many, if not most, may choose to stay in Europe – or possibly return to Ukraine. But a subset hopes to join family members in the United States, according to their lawyers. However, those exiting Ukraine and hoping to secure a US visa will likely face long wait times and limited appointment availability.

Foreign citizens have struggled for months to get consular appointments amid processing delays due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Now embassies have closed in Russia, Belarus and Ukraine. This could increase pressure on other consular posts in the region which are already feeling the brunt of a visa backlog of nearly half a million cases.

“They’re all catching up with COVID,” said Fuji Whittenberg, a member of the American Immigration Lawyers Association’s State Department Liaison Committee. “It’s really kind of a big mess.”

The State Department announced on March 1 that Ukrainian green card cases would instead be handled at the consular post in Frankfurt, Germany. However, Ukrainians are free to apply wherever they are for non-immigrant visas, such as tourist visas and some work visas, the department said.

These visas could allow Ukrainians to stay temporarily with their families in the United States and are issued much faster than immigrant visas, making them a more viable option for people wishing to leave Europe quickly.

Faced with limited resources, however, consular officers have generally deprioritized visitor visas and instead focused their resources on services to US citizens and green card cases for their spouses. As a result, wait times for temporary visas have increased, with some stretching to almost a year – if appointments are available.

On Tuesday in Budapest, Hungary, the wait for a visitor visa appointment was 275 days. At the embassy in Chisinau, Moldova, the wait was 329 days.

The U.S. Embassy in Bucharest, Romania, was not even accepting visa appointments except for emergencies, defined as travel needs “to support critical infrastructure in the United States. , or a life-threatening or life-threatening health emergency.”

In Poland, which recently absorbed visa applications from closed posts in Minsk, Belarus and Moscow, wait times for temporary visa appointments were already increasing.

On February 28, the consular post in Warsaw, Poland posted an 86-day wait for a visitor visa and a six-day wait for other temporary visas, including student visas. Just two days later, on March 2, the wait for visitor visas had risen to 134 days, with a wait of 46 days for other types of visas.

Those who do manage to get an appointment may face another hurdle: proving their eligibility for a temporary visa. This requires applicants to demonstrate strong ties to their country of origin and an intention to return, known as “non-immigration intention”.

“For displaced refugees, there really isn’t a natural visa category,” said David Strashnoy, a former U.S. consular officer who was born in Ukraine but now practices immigration law in California.

Strashnoy hopes to see the State Department apply more lenient standards when assessing the non-immigration intent of Ukrainian applicants, though he added that the “jury is still out” on the success the applicants will have. Ukrainians might have to obtain these visas.

“Crisis” mode

The increased demand for consular services is not new to the State Department, which months earlier had found itself vacating its post in Kabul, Afghanistan, while working to clear a backlog. applications for special immigrant visas from Afghans who had assisted the US military.

Following the withdrawal, the Biden administration was criticized for its failure to resolve the backlog of special immigrant visas before Kabul fell to the Taliban, leaving many Afghans who had helped the United States caught. trapped and in danger.

Some former State Department officials expressed optimism that the department would deliver this time around.

“The crisis is like a muscle. The more you use it, the more you get used to it and learn,” said Aaron Karnell, former US consular chief in Belfast, Ireland. “The State Department can hone its crisis management capabilities. Every crisis gives them the opportunity to do things better.

Strashnoy called it “trivial” for the State Department to increase staff to busier positions during a crisis like this.

“Everyone is rolling up their sleeves and doing what they can, regardless of the influx,” he said. “That was always my experience when I worked in the department.”

The Canadian government has announced that it will prioritize immigration cases from Ukrainians, while Ireland has waived visa requirements for Ukrainians.

The United States stopped short of such flexibilities, but Plaksin said he had already noticed the federal government granting more requests from its Ukrainian clients to expedite their immigration cases.

“I think the surrounding consulates are ready to absorb some extra work, and they will,” said Loren Locke, another former consular officer. “Is this going to magically give them the ability to do it as fast as everyone would like? No, because they still have their own arrears. They always have their own urgent cases.

A State Department official said in a statement that the department was “working to ensure that our embassies and consulates in the region are adequately staffed and resourced” following the suspension of consular services in Kyiv, but did not would not comment on internal staff.

The official added that consular officers “prioritize consular support to U.S. citizens and their immediate family members.”

It is too early to tell how many Ukrainians will eventually apply to immigrate to the United States, with Ukraine’s future up in the air and Russian President Vladimir Putin’s military ambitions in the region unknown.

But it’s worth highlighting, Strashnoy said, the tens of millions of Ukrainians who stayed to defend their country.

He told of a potential client, an American citizen, who wanted to bring her nephew to the United States. The person’s sister and nephew had managed to leave Ukraine, but the sister had no intention of traveling to the United States with her son. Instead, she wanted to see her child safe so she could return to Ukraine and fight.

“The overwhelming majority of the country is staying, and most impressively, is fighting,” Strashnoy said. “It’s incredible.”


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