The National Pulse

Legal community supports Ukrainians displaced by Russia's war against Ukraine

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Russian Invasion on Ukraine

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which began in February 2022, has forced thousands to flee the country. Photo by Aleksandr Gusev/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images.

At 6 a.m. on Feb. 24, 2022, Alina Trehubenko woke up in her Kyiv home to loud, jolting sounds.

Her mother came to her bedside, where her 3-year-old daughter, Alisa, was still asleep. Her 1-year-old son, David, was down the hall.

“War has started,” her mother told her.

The 29-year-old eco-hotel manager and single mother ran to her window to find fear and chaos. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine had begun.

“People were running; cars were going everywhere,” according to Trehubenko.

Hours later, Trehubenko, her mother and her two toddlers packed a single suitcase, a plastic bag with food, their passports, cash and some diapers in their car and headed out of town without knowing their destination.

Across the Atlantic in Southern California, Michael Bazyler, a former refugee from Poland of Ukrainian descent, watched the news from Kyiv with despair. “What I saw was the international legal order created by Nuremberg being destroyed by this invasion,” says the Chapman University Dale E. Fowler School of Law professor.

By mid-March, Bazyler had formed the Ukrainian Mothers and Children Transport initiative, or UMACT, a collaboration of lawyers, professors and law students that helps Ukrainian families secure travel visas. Its name aims to evoke the Kindertransport, which brought 10,000 Jewish children to the United Kingdom as World War II loomed, says Bazyler, whose academic focus is law and the Holocaust.

Since spring, students and faculty from several law schools have signed on, along with a host of attorneys who serve as consultants.

The need is great: By Jan. 3, more than 7.9 million refugees from Ukraine were recorded across Europe, according to the United Nations.

“As more and more refugees are fleeing, we have to get them to other places than [continental] Europe,” Bazyler says. “Those other places are England, Canada and the United States.”

Trehubenko recounts her harrowing escape from Ukraine in this video:

Humanitarian help

It took Trehubenko 24 hours to leave Kyiv and several days of driving in freezing temperatures on tire-eating roads destroyed by Ukrainian tanks to get to the border of Poland. When she arrived, she learned her family’s stay would be limited to one week. The family decided to keep going, driving for three more days in heavy traffic to Slovakia, only to stay two weeks before heading to Germany and then on to Finland in March.

Taking her family to the U.S. was Trehubenko’s ultimate goal. She learned of President Joe Biden’s plans to welcome at least 100,000 fleeing Ukrainian citizens through the Uniting for Ukraine program.

The process, announced in April, works differently than previous U.S. programs for displaced people fleeing war-torn countries in recent years, says Beatriz Trillos Ballerini, principal attorney and founder at Trillos Ballerini Law Firm in Houston. “Uniting for Ukraine is a new way of paroling people into the U.S. that wasn’t done through the typical refugee process,” says Ballerini, who serves as co-chair of the ABA International Law Section’s Immigration and Naturalization Committee.

Terminating Title 42

In 2020, early in the pandemic, then-President Donald Trump’s administration closed the southern border to asylum-seekers via Title 42, which blocks migrants from certain places from entering the U.S.—ostensibly to prevent the spread of disease—and leads to expulsion without adjudication.

Title 42 has been a political hot potato. In May, a federal court in Louisiana blocked the Biden administration’s attempt to end Title 42; in November, the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia struck down the public health order. The ABA applauded Title 42’s termination, saying all people who seek protection from persecution or torture are entitled to fair adjudication of their claims. In late December, just as the order would have expired, Chief Justice John Roberts issued an administrative stay, allowing the full U.S. Supreme Court to consider an emergency application by 19 Republican-led states.

But those applying through Uniting for Ukraine can skip parts of the resettlement process. They arrive not as refugees but as “parolees” who must have a U.S.-based supporter who fills out a I-134 application with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services and agrees to provide financial support, housing and health care. The government then vets the supporter and the Ukrainian national. With less onerous paperwork, the process is much faster than it is for refugees requesting resettlement.

Ukrainians are eligible to stay up to two years—six months longer than some refugees with Temporary Protected Status. They can apply for but currently have no direct pathway to permanent residency.

However, some immigration advocates have criticized an exception that allows expedited entry for Ukrainians while asylum-seekers from other countries roiled by war and conflict—such as Afghanistan, Cameroon, Syria and Haiti—are turned away.

“Both our historic and contemporary immigration policies have racism at their roots. Certainly, there’s really no other explanation for the treatment of Ukrainians versus Black and brown refugees,” says Blaine Bookey, legal director of the Center for Gender & Refugee Studies at the University of California Hastings College of the Law. “I’m happy that Ukrainians were given this opportunity and are being welcomed. When we marshal the right resources, we can protect people and welcome them—and that really should be the baseline for everybody.”

A similar parole policy has recently been extended to 24,000 Venezuelans fleeing the collapse and violence of their home country. That program, announced in October, “draws parallels with the Ukrainian program, but if you look at it, it’s much more restrictive,” Bookey notes. “It’s a deterrence-first-based approach” that allows fewer people in and prohibits entry by land, across the U.S.-Mexico border.

‘It’s safe here’

On May 30, Trehubenko and her family entered the U.S. at Los Angeles International Airport, where their sponsor, John Alban, a California vintner, picked up the foursome and took them to his winery in Arroyo Grande, where the family now lives. UMACT students had helped Alban fill out the forms to sponsor Ukrainian refugees. “We had room and the desire to try to help,” Alban wrote in an email. UMACT “has provided advice, contacts and information that has been a great plus to us through the sponsorship phase and with additional aspect required for folks to both settle here and start a sustainable life.”

Brent Schneider, a UMACT associate based in St. Petersburg, Florida, and one of 30 students who has worked with the group, was assigned to assist the family. He helped Trehubenko fill out forms to obtain humanitarian parole, employment authorization and a Social Security number and card. “Through the course of getting to know these clients, what their needs are, it can involve employment law, contract law and family law. I’m learning so much,” says Schneider, a second-year student at Stetson University College of Law and a retired master sergeant in the Army.

Bazyler set up UMACT like a law firm. Students attend video training sessions, some produced by Harvard Law School’s Immigration and Refugee Advocacy Clinic. They are each assigned clients and handle specific needs. If law students need support to handle their cases, Bazyler hands them a list of immigration attorneys to tap for advice.

As of late December, UMACT had helped 11 families complete their paperwork. Other law schools have set up their own programs. The Seattle University School of Law partnered with Refugee & Immigrant Services Northwest to provide legal assistance. And over 200 attorneys from 66 law firms have helped 214 Ukrainians via Lawyers for Good Government, preparing TPS applications and work permit and fee waiver applications.

Though Trehubenko’s children struggled through the family’s travels, they have adjusted to life in California, she says. “I can see that they feel much more better now. I can see because every day is the same, you know, it’s safe here. So I’m happy. They are happy too.”

This story was originally published in the February-March 2023 issue of the ABA Journal under the headline: “Aiding Ukrainians: Students and lawyers support those displaced by the war.”

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