Exclusive: ICE Detains Ukrainians Seeking U.S. Asylum Amid Refugee Crisis

The United States is detaining Ukrainian refugees seeking entry into the country under a policy that bans asylum-seekers because of the pandemic, Newsweek has learned. The policy differs from the approach taken by many nations in Europe and appears to contradict President Joe Biden's promise that the U.S. would welcome refugees of the war in Ukraine with "open arms."

Federal immigration authorities have placed Ukrainian refugees in detention after they tried to enter the country to reach family or friends living in the United States, according to documents from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement that were obtained by Newsweek, as well as interviews with relatives and immigration attorneys.

It's not immediately clear how many Ukrainians fleeing the war have been detained under Title 42, a policy the Trump administration invoked at the start of the pandemic that effectively shut the border to asylum-seekers. The Biden administration has continued the policy, citing public health concerns. Newsweek confirmed that at least five Ukrainians have been detained. Sources spoke of several other cases that could not be immediately verified, and immigration attorneys said they knew of many more.

The documents showing that Ukrainians have been placed in ICE detention, in addition to interviews with their relatives and others, indicate that the Biden administration has not changed the pandemic-response policy to accommodate refugees of the war in Ukraine.

"Biden's policy has consistently been to keep the border closed. We haven't seen Title 42 lifted, and now we're seeing Ukrainians fleeing an active invasion going to ICE detention. Biden said they'd be welcomed with open arms. That's not happening," said Jennifer Scarborough, an immigration attorney who is helping refugees from Ukraine reunite with family or friends in the U.S.

"The fact that people from Ukraine have family here, friends here they can connect with, and they're not allowing them to enter the U.S. is hugely problematic," Scarborough said. She added: "Unless [the Biden administration] changes their policies, we expect the number of detentions to increase."

Ukrainians at Southern Border
A group pf people from Ukraine talk to a CBP officer at San Ysidro Crossing port in Tijuana, Baja California state, Mexico, on March 12, 2022. During the past days citizens mainly from Ukraine, Russia, and Belarus, have been seen at the San Ysidro crossing port seeking asylum in the United States. Guillermo Arias/AFP via Getty Images

Since the start of the war, the White House has said it would help Ukrainian refugees if they choose to come to the U.S., and Biden reiterated the message Friday.

"We will send money and food and aid to save the Ukrainian people. And I will welcome Ukrainian refugees, we should welcome them here with open arms if they need access," he said.

Since Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine last month, roughly 3 million people have fled to Poland and other neighboring European countries. While many remain in Europe, a growing number have made their way to Mexico and then tried to cross into the U.S. at the southern border.

Ukrainians must have a tourist visa to travel to the U.S., but it's difficult to obtain, especially on short notice. Mexico doesn't have the same hurdles, so the country has become the preferred route for displaced Ukrainians trying to make their way to America.

Alina Kutsenko said in a phone interview that her cousin Natalya Skalska, Natalya's husband Vitaliy and their three young children were detained March 14 by U.S. Customs and Border Protection as they tried to enter the U.S. from Mexico at the border crossing in San Ysidro, California. After being detained the husband was able to call family in the U.S. to let them know what happened, said Kutsenko, a Ukrainian immigrant who lives in Sacramento.

As of Wednesday evening the adults remained in detention, but it was unclear if their children were with them or being held separately, Kutsenko said. The family had lived in the western Ukrainian city of Lviv before fleeing the country after the war started, she said.

"I'm just really worried," Kutsenko said. "Are they going to be sent back or sit there for a long time?"

Zina, a Ukrainian immigrant who lives in South Carolina, said her brother was detained trying to enter the country earlier this month. After being held in CBP custody, he was transferred to an ICE detention center in Louisiana and has been there for nearly two weeks, according to Zina, who asked Newsweek not to use her full name and also requested that her brother remain anonymous to protect his identity.

Zina said she has spoken with her brother multiple times since he was moved to the ICE facility. "He feels terrible. He said it's been the worst days of his life," she said.

The Department of Homeland Security did not immediately return a request for comment.

Other Ukrainians who have traveled to Mexico but have not yet tried to cross the border told Newsweek in phone interviews that they were unaware the U.S. was not accepting asylum applications under Title 42.

"I didn't know about this law," Pavel Vursichenko said in an interview Wednesday from Tijuana, where he arrived with his family Tuesday in hopes of finding a way to cross into the U.S. He added that he was finding out about the policy for the first time in his call with this reporter. "Nobody's telling us anything. People aren't informed."

Vursichenko, his wife and their five young children, aged two to 13, fled their hometown of Rus'ka Polyana in central Ukraine in the first days of the Russian invasion. They spent several days waiting to cross the border into Poland, then went to stay with friends in the city of Tarnow.

The family decided to try to get to the U.S. to wait out the war with relatives there after deciding they couldn't stay with their friends in Poland indefinitely, he said.

"If there was a way to stay in Poland I would have," he said. "My friends had their own relatives showing up. There's so many refugees in Poland. Staying there, we didn't have anywhere to be long term," he said.

With the help of friends, the family bought plane tickets to Tijuana, with a connection in Cancun, Mexico. They spent Tuesday night in a hotel and on Wednesday moved into an Airbnb rental paid for by Vursichenko's brother, who lives in Southern California.

"We're planning to stay in the U.S. until the end of the war, to wait out this horror. And then we'll have to see if we can go back," he said. Vursichenko, a contractor and electrician, said he wants to enter the U.S. legally with his family, but had no idea if he would be able to.

Several attorneys who are helping other Ukrainian refugees enter the U.S. told Newsweek that Title 42 presented a major obstacle. Asylum seekers can apply for an exemption from the rule, and border patrol officers have discretion on a case-by-case basis, but in practice exemptions are rarely granted and that hasn't changed since the war in Ukraine started, several attorneys said.

"It's been incredibly difficult to help Ukrainians get into the United States, even when they have friends and family to receive them here, because of Title 42," said Natalie Moores, an attorney based in San Diego who is working with Ukrainian refugees.

Former President Donald Trump's administration put the policy in place at the start of the pandemic, saying that closing the borders to asylum seekers was necessary to curb the spread of Covid-19. Biden has kept it in place, despite criticism from Democrats in Congress and immigration advocates who argue there is no public health justification for it.

The policy has resulted in more than 1.6 million expulsions of migrants seeking entry to the U.S., many from Mexico and Central America.

Last week, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced a change in the policy to make it easier for unaccompanied minors to seek asylum in the U.S. When asked if the Biden administration was considering a broader change to the policy, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said at a press briefing Tuesday that the final determination was up to the CDC.

The administration's response to Ukrainian asylum seekers stands in marked contrast to the response from European countries that share a border with Ukraine.

European nations have not made concerns over the pandemic a barrier to entry, instead moving as quickly as possible to open their doors to the growing exodus of Ukrainians fleeing the war.

Poland has taken in 1.8 million Ukrainian refugees, according to United Nations data, the most of any nation. Romania has taken in nearly half a million refugees. The Republic of Moldova, Hungary and Slovakia have all accepted more than 200,000 Ukrainian refugees. UN officials have warned it could become the largest refugee crisis in Europe since World War Two.

Vursichenko said before the war he had no desire to leave Ukraine, or live in America. Now, he said from his Airbnb rental in Tijuana, all he wants to do is find some way for his family to reach the U.S.

"I don't know how we'll get there," he said.