A 17-year-old Ukrainian woman who waswas transferred over the weekend to a government shelter in New York for unaccompanied and undocumented children, her future godfather told CBS News on Monday.
Like thousands of Ukrainians unable to return to their war-torn country, Yelyzaveta sought to enter the United States through the southern border last week. But because she was traveling without her parents or legal guardians, Yelyzaveta was treated as an unaccompanied child and detained by Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officers in Southern California for a few days.
Since March, US border officials have been admitting Ukrainian families and adults through the San Ysidro port of entry near San Diego. But a 2008 anti-trafficking law requires border officials to transfer undocumented children traveling without their parents to Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) shelters.
Yelyzaveta’s initial detention by border officials shocked her travel companion Alina Dolinenko, 21, another missionary trainee from Ukraine who was allowed to enter the United States, and Sharon Fletcher, a resident of Maryland who had agreed to host the two Ukrainian missionary trainees at her home.
In a brief phone call Thursday, Fletcher said Yelyzaveta complained about conditions at the CBP facility where she was being held and told her she was scared. Fletcher grew concerned as she didn’t hear from Yelyzaveta again until Sunday when the 17-year-old was able to call back.
“She said she was in a better place,” Fletcher told CBS News, recounting Sunday’s conversation. “They give her everything she needs. She was transferred from the border to Chicago and then to New York.”
The HHS Office of Refugee Resettlement houses unaccompanied children without legal status in the United States until they turn 18 or the agency can find and approve sponsors, usually family members residing in the United States. United States, which can deal with minors.
The vast majority of unaccompanied children in HHS’s care are from Central America, but the agency has recently received a small but growing number of Ukrainian minors who have entered the country through ports of entry without their parents or legal guardians.
On Monday, the Office of Refugee Resettlement was housing about 20 unaccompanied Ukrainian children, a US official told CBS News, requesting anonymity to discuss internal data. The refugee office was hosting 10,000 unaccompanied minors over the weekend, according to agency data.
Fletcher, the head of a nonprofit organization that sponsored Christian missionary training for Yelyzaveta in Mexico, said she is now in touch with HHS social workers to begin the process of sponsoring Yelyzaveta so that she can leave government custody. Yelyzaveta is expected to turn 18 in June.
Because she is unrelated to Yelyzaveta, Fletcher’s sponsorship offer may take longer than cases involving sponsors who are family members. But Fletcher said she was recently able to get a letter from Yelyzaveta’s parents in Ukraine to speed up the sponsorship process.
“I told her I had heard from her parents and she was like, ‘You’re telling me I haven’t been able to communicate with my parents for all these months, but have you been able to communicate with them?’ Fletcher mentioned. “I told him everything would be fine.”
Fletcher said she was ready to house Yelyzaveta and Dolinenko until they could return to Ukraine.
Faced with limited avenues to immigrate directly to the United States, record numbers of Ukrainians displaced by Russia’s invasion of their homeland flew to Mexico seeking to enter the United States along the southern border.
Since February 1,were processed by U.S. border officials, the vast majority at ports of entry, according to internal government data obtained by CBS News.
Since the start of the Russian invasion in late February, 4.5 million people have fled Ukraine in the fastest refugee crisis since World War II, according to United Nations figures.