It was not a reunion, but it looked like one. They had never met before in-person, but they hugged like close friends after a prolonged separation. One of them was an American citizen born in Ghana and the other was a Ukrainian teenager released from U.S. government custody.
On April 29, Sharon Fletcher traveled to New York’s LaGuardia Airport to pick up Yelyzaveta, a 17-year-old Ukrainian girl who had been living in a government shelter for unaccompanied minors in federal custody. Yelyzaveta said she teared up when she hugged Fletcher, who had agreed to sponsor her so she could be released from U.S. custody.
“I was crying,” Yelyzaveta said, recalling their encounter at the airport’s baggage claim area. “I was so happy.” CBS News is not disclosing Yelyzaveta’s surname because she is a minor.
Less than two hours after they met, Yelyzaveta and Fletcher boarded a flight to the Washington, D.C., area, where Fletcher, her husband and their two young children are hosting the Ukrainian girl in their Maryland home.
“We definitely have a third child. My husband says that all the time,” Fletcher said.
Yelyzaveta is one of thousands of Ukrainians who have entered the U.S. along the southern border since Russia invaded Ukraine in late February. In two months, the U.S. allowed a record 20,000 Ukrainians to enter the country under humanitarian exceptions to pandemic border restrictions, government data show.
But a small number of the Ukrainians who’ve requested entry along the U.S.-Mexico border have been minors traveling without their parents, prompting U.S. authorities to process them as unaccompanied children who must remain in government custody until they are placed with a sponsor or turn 18.
As of Tuesday, the Office of Refugee Resettlement, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) agency that cares for unaccompanied minors, was housing 30 children from Ukraine, a U.S. official told CBS News, requesting anonymity to discuss internal statistics.
Many of these Ukrainian children traveled from Europe to Mexico with nonparental family members, like grandparents, uncles and aunts, according to immigration attorneys. Others, like Yelyzaveta, reached the U.S.-Mexico border with unrelated companions, like friends, or completely alone.
Because of a 2008 law designed to protect migrant minors from exploitation, these Ukrainian youth displaced by the war in their homeland have ended up in U.S. government shelters that predominantly house children who have escaped extreme poverty, food insecurity and violence in Central America.
Overall, Ukrainian children make up a small portion of more than 8,000 unaccompanied minors currently in HHS custody, according to agency statistics.
Erik Pinheiro, an attorney with the advocacy group Al Otro Lado who has assisted migrant children along the Tijuana-San Diego border, including a few dozen from Ukraine, said all unaccompanied minors should be allowed to request U.S. asylum, regardless of their nationality.
“Legally, they should be able to just walk up to a port of entry and be admitted by [Customs and Border Protection] because unaccompanied children are not subject to Title 42. But that’s not what’s happening in practice for non-Ukrainian children,” Pinheiro said, referring to the pandemic-era border restrictions.
The flow of Ukrainians flying to Mexico to seek entry along the U.S. border has slowed recently after U.S. authorities stopped admitting most undocumented Ukrainians on April 25, when the Biden administration launched a program for sponsoring Ukrainian refugees, according to attorneys and U.S. officials.
While she called her initial detention by U.S. border officials near San Diego a “horrible” experience, Yelyzaveta said she considers herself lucky since she had someone in the U.S. willing to care for her.
“I just saw a human being in need”
Yelyzaveta said she traveled to Mexico to start a Christian missionary program two weeks before Russia launched its military offensive against Ukraine, where her parents and brother remain. When the war started, she said she didn’t know what to do. Returning to Ukraine was not an option.
After finding out about Yelyzaveta’s predicament, Fletcher, who runs a nonprofit organization called Forgotten Places that sponsors young Christian missionaries across the world, said she offered to host the Ukrainian teenager in her home.
Yelyzaveta traveled to the Tijuana-San Diego border in early April, when U.S. officials were admitting hundreds of Ukrainians per day. But because she was a minor traveling with a friend, Yelyzaveta remained in CBP custody for three days.
With little else to do, Yelyzaveta said she spent most of her time at the border facility sleeping, though that sometimes proved difficult due to the cold. Citing the unsavory food offered by officials, she said she also initially refused to eat.
Yelyzaveta was later flown to Chicago and then to New York, where caseworkers transferred her to an HHS shelter for unaccompanied minors in the Bronx. Except for another Ukrainian girl, the other minors at the shelter were Spanish-speaking migrant children from Latin America, Yelyzaveta said.
While she mentioned her stay at the shelter was filled with some boredom, Yelyzaveta said the facility staff treated her well. She also said she appreciated learning about the perilous journeys some migrant children from Central America undertook to reach the U.S. southern border, often alone.
“I was in shock by the stories, how they moved,” Yelyzaveta said, citing a conversation with a migrant boy who told her he had been in U.S. custody for eight months.
Yelyzaveta, on the other hand, spent three weeks at the Bronx shelter before being released to Fletcher, even though releases of unaccompanied minors to unrelated adults typically take months to process, according to immigration attorneys who have worked on similar cases.
“Just like with any other unaccompanied child in our care, it is our legal responsibility to provide safe, appropriate care to unaccompanied migrant children from Ukraine during the time they are in our care,” an HHS spokesman said.
Fletcher is thankful the sponsorship process went smoothly. The symbolism of a Ghanaian immigrant sponsoring a Ukrainian refugee is not lost on her. “I was born and raised in Africa. I came here 20 years ago. At the end of the day, whether it’s Ukrainian or Latin American, we’re all humans,” Fletcher said.
Sponsoring Yelyzaveta was “a no-brainer,” Fletcher added. “I didn’t think about the fact that she’s from Europe or she’s white or that she’s not blood related to me. I just saw a human being in need.”
Meanwhile, Yelyzaveta, who will turn 18 in June, is grateful to have a temporary home in the U.S. But she said she intends to return to Ukraine “to restore her country” and see her parents again once the war abates.