17-year-old Ukrainian woman remains detained in US after border separation

A 17-year-old Ukrainian girl remained in US government custody on Saturday after she was denied immediate entry into the country by authorities along the southern border, where a growing number of Ukrainians have traveled hoping to enter the United States, his caregivers told CBS News.

On Wednesday night, 17-year-old Yelyzaveta, who was training to become a missionary in Mexico, traveled to the US border crossing in San Ysidro, southern California, alongside fellow intern Alina Dolinenko, 21. missionary from Ukraine. Unable to return to war-torn Ukraine, Yelyzaveta and Dolinenko hoped to enter the United States to live with a resident of Maryland who sponsored their missionary program in Mexico.

U.S. border officials allowed hundreds of Ukrainians to enter the country each day through the San Ysidro crossing after being instructed to early March consider exempting Ukrainian passport holders from pandemic-era restrictions that currently prevent other migrants from seeking asylum.

But when they were processed at the San Ysidro port of entry, Dolinenko said they were told by US border officials that Yelyzaveta could not be immediately allowed to enter the country because she was underage and not traveling with her children. parents or legal guardians.

Yelyzaveta in Tijuana, Mexico
Yelyzaveta in Tijuana, Mexico

Sharon Fletcher

US customs officials told them they would take Yelyzaveta “for an indefinite period, because she is not allowed to cross without her parents,” said Dolinenko, who was allowed to enter the United States. “She cried a lot.”

A 2008 law requires U.S. border officials to temporarily detain undocumented children who are processed without their parents or legal guardians until they can transfer them to shelters overseen by the Department of Health and Human Services ( HHS). The law generally requires that this transfer take place within 72 hours.

The law was designed to protect migrant children from violence and trafficking, and was applied primarily to Central American minors, who make up the large majority unaccompanied youth in the care of HHS.

However, the unprecedented number of Ukrainians traveling to Mexico in an attempt to escape the Russian invasion and quickly enter the United States led to this anti-trafficking law affecting a small number of Ukrainian children.

The HHS Refugee Resettlement Office was housing at least four Ukrainian children recently transferred from U.S. border custody on Friday, a U.S. government official told CBS News, requesting anonymity to discuss internal data.

CBS News only uses Yelyzaveta’s first name because she is underage. His exact whereabouts were unknown on Saturday. Sharon Fletcher, the Maryland resident who hoped to provide Yelyzaveta and Dolinenko with housing, said Yelyzaveta told her during a two-minute call Thursday that she remained in the custody of US Customs and Border Protection (CBP).

“She burst into tears saying, ‘I don’t want to be here,'” Fletcher told CBS News. “She doesn’t want to be in this place. She wants to be free.”

CBP and Department of Homeland Security officials did not respond to questions about Yelyzaveta’s treatment and whereabouts. HHS did not immediately respond to a request for comment. A US official said Yelyzaveta was not in an HHS shelter on Friday evening.

Fletcher runs a nonprofit called Forgotten Places, which she says sponsors a program called Youth With A Mission that trains young Christian missionaries around the world, including in Mexico. Yelyzaveta arrived in Mexico in January to join Youth With A Mission, Fletcher said.

After the war in Ukraine began, Fletcher said she told Yelyzaveta and Dolinenko that she would take them in to her house in Maryland, noting that Yelyzaveta had no family in the United States.

Fletcher said Yelyzaveta had been unable to contact her parents for months and her brother remained in Ukraine to help transport civilians displaced by the war. The family lived in Vorzel, a town on the outskirts of kyiv that was occupied by Russian forces last month.

If Yelyzaveta is transferred to an HHS shelter or foster home, she will remain in government custody until she turns 18 in June, unless released to a sponsor in the United States. According to a Ukrainian passport reviewed by CBS News, Yelyzaveta was born on June 6. 2004.

However, HHS generally only releases unaccompanied children to family members, such as parents, older siblings, grandparents, uncles, and aunts. The agency can place unaccompanied children with sponsors who are not family members, but the process is longer due to increased screening, unless the child’s parents consent to the release .

Fletcher urged the government to release Yelyzaveta as soon as possible to ensure she is not further traumatized by her time in US custody. Fletcher said she was willing to sponsor and host Yelyzaveta.

“Letting someone sit in a cell, or in this facility, knowing their parents are stranded, they don’t even know if they’re alive or not, there’s a war going on in Ukraine, I mean all this trauma, no human being should go through this – that’s what bothers me,” Fletcher said.

Fletcher said she contacted several congressional offices about Yelyzaveta’s situation, including Senator Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, whose staff told her they were looking into the matter.

Ukrainian single adults and families traveling with children are being processed at U.S. ports of entry along the southern border under exemptions to a pandemic-era restriction known as the Title 42which is used to quickly deport other migrants to Mexico or their country of origin.

Faced with limited legal avenues to reach the United States directly, thousands of Ukrainians have traveled to Tijuana in recent weeks in hopes of qualifying for Title 42 exemptions. After their number appeared on an ad hoc established by volunteers, Ukrainians come to the San Ysidro crossing to request permission to enter the United States.

In the past week alone, nearly 3,000 Ukrainians have been processed by US border officials, DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said. told CBS News Wednesday. In February, U.S. authorities along the Mexican border reported encountering fewer than 300 Ukrainians, according to CBP data.

Dolinenko, the young missionary trainee who traveled with Yelyzaveta, said she was currently in San Diego waiting to see if US border officials would release Yelyzaveta.

“I’m very worried,” she said via WhatsApp message.

Ed O’Keefe contributed reporting.

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