Written by: Raman Solanki, O’Neill MPA candidate
The Russian invasion of Ukraine forced many civilians to flee their homes, quickly condensing their lives into suitcases before crossing into neighboring nations like Poland and Slovakia.
Daria Trekhan was one of them.
She had traveled to western Ukraine to find a new place for her family to live, leaving her two daughters with a trusted family friend in Kyiv. While she was gone, Russia attacked, cutting off transportation to Kyiv—and to her daughters. Daria traveled across the border to Poland, then to Prague in Czech Republic/Czechia. The next day she boarded a train for Vienna, Austria. When she arrived at the train station, she watched on giant screens as Russian troops advanced toward Kyiv.
A flood of emotion came over her. Her daughters, 19-year-old Elina and 11-year-old Angela, were still in Kyiv, hiding in a makeshift bunker. The pain and fear she felt made her want to flee even farther—all the way to the United States, where she hoped she would find safety and help to reunite with her daughters.
A place she had never been was the only place she felt she would be safe and supported. She connected with the U.S.-based nonprofit Ending Radicalization which helped her reserve a seat on a flight to the United States.
Daria trembled as she prepared to board her flight from Vienna to Newark, New Jersey. She clung to her carry-on, her only bag that contained what was left of her once-normal life.
As she made her way through airport security in Vienna, she was stopped to provide her U.S. visa and proof of COVID vaccination. She had neither. When pressed by Austrian authorities, she responded in broken English, “I am asylum-seeker. Geneva Convention. No visa required to board plane. Asylum in USA, Asylum USA.”
She was allowed to board her flight, the fourth border she would cross on her journey to safety. As she buckled into her seat, she exhaled, thinking the worst was behind her.
But Daria had unknowingly fled one crisis only to become immersed in another—one focused on immigration policies that some asylum-seekers say treat them worse than the places they left behind.
When her plane landed in New Jersey, she requested asylum from U.S. authorities. Per immigration law, she was detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement at the Elizabeth Detention Center in Newark. Nearly four weeks later, she remains in ICE custody.
My work as a co-founder of Ending Radicalization connected me to Daria. I was allowed to speak with her through a detainee phone line. She told me she was locked in a windowless room with no easy access to a restroom. All of her belongings—including the phone that allowed her to speak with her daughters in Ukraine—were confiscated. In that moment, Daria became a number—one our government uses to interact with immigrants.
Each year, thousands of people navigate our difficult and complex immigration process. As of March 13, 2022, there were 20,146 people detained in ICE custody, 72% of whom have no criminal record.
The Department of Homeland Security defines an asylum-seeker as someone who (1) is outside their country of nationality and cannot or will not return because of persecution or a well-founded fear of persecution due to their race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or belonging to certain social groups, and (2) is already in the United States or trying to enter through one of the nation’s ports of entry.
Upon entry, they are detained. U.S. policy then requires the asylum-seeker to wait for the government to schedule their initial asylum request interview. Historically, that can take up to four years.
Detention Watch Network—a nonprofit working to end immigration detention—says many asylum-seekers are denied access to lawyers, separated from their families, and experience severe medical neglect. In fact, the organization says more than 200 people have died in ICE custody since its inception in 2003.
The current immigration policy crisis in the United States is not only creating an influx of Ukrainian asylum-seekers. Our country also housed more than 8,600 Russians seeking asylum between August 2021 and January 2022. According to an ABC News investigation, Russian citizens do not need visas to visit Mexico. As a result, those seeking asylum can fly to Mexico then drive or walk to the U.S. border, where they are detained by immigration officials.
But for all who seek asylum here, their request is not guaranteed. In fact, our courts deny most cases. Like many others, Daria has no assurances she will be allowed to stay but will remain in detention until she receives a court date. If her case is denied, she would be deported back to Europe.
In March, the Biden administration announced it would offer Temporary Protection Status to Ukrainian citizens fleeing the war if they were in the United States—without documentation—prior to March 1. Daria arrived on March 2. Many more Ukrainian citizens have arrived since then.
Those who arrived after March 1 with expired or invalid documents are now detained by immigration authorities until their file moves through the system. That takes six months on average but is backlogged due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Under international law, immigration detention is meant to be a last resort. Unfortunately, that isn’t always the case in the United States. And experiences like that of Daria Trekhan and countless voiceless others detained in ICE custody are ubiquitous.
Yet the United States can—and should—change current policies to remove barriers for those seeking safety within our borders.
First, the Biden administration should expand Temporary Protection Status to include all Ukrainian citizens who have fled the war, regardless of arrival date. The administration also should give asylum-seekers the legal right to work by issuing them an Employment Authorization Document. Allowing Ukrainian citizens to work while they shelter in the United States is one way to help them preserve their dignity.
Congress also must act. Unlike other federal agencies, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services is funded by user fees. It also is understaffed with only about 20,000 government employees. Each day, these workers are responsible for adjudicating more than 28,000 immigration benefit requests, including naturalizing a lawful resident every 27 seconds. Passing a bill allocating more resources would help applications like Daria’s be processed more quickly.
In addition, the U.S. government should stop fining airlines that transport individuals who lack proper documentation. Airlines face fines averaging $3,500 per passenger for allowing people to travel without proper documentation. The fear of fines can prompt airlines to deny travel, preventing people from fleeing far enough away from violence that they feel safe. The responsibility for both checking the documentation of those seeking asylum and for making decisions about whether they can travel should rest solely on border patrol agents, not airline employees.
Lastly, while it is true the majority of asylum-seekers in the United States are people of non-European origin, our immigration policies must also review potential racism and discriminatory undertones. They are failing every individual trying to seek refuge within our borders, including European refugees like Daria.
Raman Solanki is an O’Neill MPA candidate and co-founder of Ending Radicalization, a nonprofit that aims to protect vulnerable citizens around the world from being radicalized. Viewpoints expressed are those of the author.