17-year-old Ukrainian girl remains in US custody after border separation

17-year-old Ukrainian girl remains in US custody after border separation

A 17-year-old Ukrainian girl remained in US government custody on Saturday after authorities denied her immediate entry into the country along the southern border, where a growing number of Ukrainians they have been traveling hoping to enter the US, his caretakers told CBS News.

On Wednesday night, Yelyzaveta, 17, who was training to be a missionary in Mexico, traveled to the San Ysidro U.S. border crossing in Southern California along with Alina Dolinenko, 21, a fellow missionary-in-training from Ukraine. Unable to return to war-torn Ukraine, Yelyzaveta and Dolinenko hoped to enter the US to live with a Maryland resident who was sponsoring her missionary program in Mexico.

US border officials have been allowing hundreds of Ukrainians into the country per day through the San Ysidro crossing after being instructed in early March consider exempting people with Ukrainian passports 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 immediately be allowed into the country because she was a minor and not traveling with her parents or guardians. legal.

Yelyzaveta in Tijuana, Mexico
Yelyzaveta in Tijuana, Mexico

Sharon Fletch

U.S. border officials told them Yelyzaveta would be taken “for an indefinite period of time, because she has no right to cross without her parents,” said Dolinenko, who was allowed to enter the U.S. “She I cry a lot”.

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

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

However, the unprecedented number of Ukrainians flying to Mexico to try to escape the Russian invasion and gain quick entry into the US has led to the anti-trafficking law affecting a small number of Ukrainian children.

As of Friday, the HHS Office of Refugee Resettlement was housing at least four Ukrainian children recently transferred from US border custody, a US government official told CBS News, requesting anonymity to Discuss internal data.

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

“He just burst into tears and said, ‘I don’t want to be here,'” Fletcher told CBS News. “She doesn’t want to be in that place. She wants to be free.”

Representatives from CBP and the Department of Homeland Security did not respond to questions about Yelyzaveta’s prosecution and whereabouts. HHS did not immediately respond to a request for comment. A US official said Yelyzaveta was not in an HHS shelter as of Friday night.

Fletcher runs a non-profit organization called forgotten placeswho said he 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 missionFletcher said.

After the war in Ukraine began, Fletcher said he told Yelyzaveta and Dolinenko that he would welcome them to his Maryland home, noting that Yelyzaveta has no family in the US.

Fletcher said Yelyzaveta has been unable to communicate with her parents for months and her brother remains in Ukraine helping 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 she is released to a sponsor in the US. 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, aunts, and uncles. The agency can place unaccompanied children with sponsors who are not family members, but the process is longer due to further investigation, 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 that she is ready to sponsor and introduce Yelyzaveta.

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

Fletcher said he has contacted several congressional offices about Yelyzaveta’s situation, including Sen. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, whose staff told him they are looking into the matter.

Single adults and Ukrainian families traveling with children are being processed at US ports of entry along the southern border under exemptions to a pandemic-era restriction known as title 42which is being used to quickly expel other migrants to Mexico or their countries of origin.

Facing limited legal avenues to reach the US directly, thousands of Ukrainians have traveled to Tijuana in recent weeks hoping to benefit from Title 42 exemptions. After their numbers appeared on an ad hoc list Created by volunteers, Ukrainians show up at the San Ysidro crossing to ask for permission to enter the US.

Last week alone, nearly 3,000 Ukrainians were processed by US border officials, DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas he told CBS News Wednesday. In February, US authorities along the border with Mexico reported encountering fewer than 300 Ukrainians, CBP data Show.

Dolinenko, the young missionary-in-training who traveled with Yelyzaveta, said she is currently in San Diego waiting to see if US border officials will release Yelyzaveta.

“I am very worried,” she said in a WhatsApp message.

Ed O’Keefe contributed to this report.

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