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Pro Bono Victory – Releasing Ukrainian Child Refugee from Government Custody

June 2022

Thanks to the efforts of a firm associate, a 16-year old Ukrainian refugee—Vasya—has been released from the custody of the federal government and reunited with his older brother, who lives in the U.S. Normally children in these circumstances are held in custody for about a month; our intervention helped reduce custodial time to just 1.5 weeks.

U.S. law mandates that any unaccompanied minors trying to enter the United States without a lawful immigration status are automatically placed in custody of the U.S. Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR). The laudable goal of this regulation is to prevent human trafficking and child abuse. However, its implementation is hard-felt by Ukrainian refugees coming to the United States seeking humanitarian parole—which is NOT a lawful immigration status when they approach the border. Many families are sending their children with older siblings, grandmothers, or other extended family members to escape the war. Unfortunately, those children are considered “unaccompanied.”

Vasya was one of those children. His father cannot leave Ukraine, and his mother chose to stay with him there. They sent Vasya, their youngest son, to America in the hopes he would find safety with his brother who lives here. Vasya had notarized and translated powers of attorneys from both parents in hand. He crossed multiple state borders to end up in a makeshift refugee camp on the Tijuana-San Diego border where he, along with many other Ukrainians, was seeking entry to the United States based on humanitarian parole. His brother was waiting on the other side of the border.

Vasya did not make it through the border. After several days of transfer through various government agencies, including ICE, he was placed into an ORR shelter. His phone was taken. He did not speak English, and no one at the shelter could find a Ukrainian or Russian translator. (The shelter manager later explained that they were still working on the problem of figuring out what language is spoken in Ukraine). His only solace was the other Ukrainian teenagers, who also ended up in the same shelter.

Vasya’s brother started looking for help immediately, hoping there was a simple misunderstanding. Eventually, he reached our associate, who was volunteering at the refugee camp, and the other volunteers knew that the associate was a lawyer. Even though our associate explained to him that, as an IP attorney, the associate did not have any expertise in family reunification proceedings, the brother prevailed upon the associate just to translate for him. They agreed, thinking it could not be too difficult to explain that Vasya was traveling to meet his biological brother, with permission from both of their parents.

The ORR quickly proved them wrong. ORR case managers refused to talk unless the associate filed a notice of appearance. After submitting it, they refused to talk because Vasya had not yet signed it (even though they controlled when he received it). They also rejected the brother's paperwork because he typed his name instead of writing it by hand (separate from the wet signature requirement); refused to believe that the brother's house exists despite a submitted deed from the State and county records (it was a new development which didn't show up on Google Street View); and other “issues.” But our associate persevered and ultimately succeeded in helping reunite Vasya with his brother.

The refugee center estimates that around 50 other Ukrainian children are currently held in ORR custody. More are likely on the way, since the recently-announced United for Ukraine program does not appear to permit these children any other way of entry but through federal custody.

Our associate is currently working with SixFifty, a Wilson Sonsini legal technology subsidiary, to (1) create a tool which will allow Ukrainian refugees to fill out the family reunification packet PDF form online in Ukrainian, and (2) distribute translated ORR materials, obtained through the help of volunteer translators, into the hands of ORR and NGOs.