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Ukrainians trying to get to the U.S. are having trouble getting visas


More than 3 million Ukrainians have fled their country since the Russian invasion began. Most of them are in Europe. Some are trying to join relatives here in the U.S. and are finding that it's a lot harder than they expected. NPR's Joel Rose reports.

JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: It's been 24 years since Elena Tisnovsky left Ukraine and moved to New York, but she still talks to her brother in Kyiv on the phone every day. And she's been watching the Russian invasion in horror.

ELENA TISNOVSKY: I am scared to read the news, and there is nothing I can do. The only thing that I can do is to help my sister-in-law and my brother's children to be safe.

ROSE: When the war broke out, Tisnovsky's sister-in-law fled Ukraine with her teenage kids. The plan was that they try to join Tisnovsky in the U.S.

TISNOVSKY: I'm the closest family. I have the means, ability and strong willingness to help.

ROSE: Tisnovsky's relatives made it to Germany. Then the plan hit a snag. Tisnovsky's niece and nephew have U.S. visas, but their Ukrainian passports are expired. Tisnovsky's sister-in-law does have a passport, but she doesn't have a visa. And it could take her months to get one, if she's approved at all.

TISNOVSKY: The situation is dire. It is dire. I think the United States should do something to help these people.

ROSE: Across the country, immigration lawyers say Ukrainian Americans are trying to bring relatives to join them in the U.S. and finding their paths blocked by a web of legal obstacles - strict visa requirements, expired passports, missing documents, pandemic restrictions. Polish president Andrzej Duda says he raised the issue with Vice President Kamala Harris during her recent visit. Here's Duda speaking through an interpreter.


PRESIDENT ANDRZEJ DUDA: (Through interpreter) I asked to speed up and simplify the procedures for such people, to give the opportunity to these people to be reunited with their families, to help them to survive this time. So we are...

ROSE: The Biden administration's position is that most of these refugees want to stay in Europe, but it has pledged to help wherever they are. Here's Biden himself earlier this month.


PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: 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.

ROSE: But in reality, getting to the U.S. through the formal refugee process would take years. For Ukrainians who do have relatives here, it would be quicker to get a visa to come as an immigrant or a temporary visitor. And even then, there are significant barriers.

PATRICIA GANNON: People were caught off-guard.

ROSE: Patricia Gannon is an immigration lawyer with the firm Greenspoon Marder in New York. She's advising the Tisnovskys and other families in similar positions.

GANNON: It wasn't like their clothes were packed. It wasn't like their passports were ready in hand. It wasn't like, hey; in three months we're going to get bombed so I better go to the U.S. Embassy now and get my visa.

ROSE: In order to get a tourist visa, you have to show that you're not planning to stay in the U.S. forever and that you have somewhere to go when the visa ends, whether it's Ukraine or elsewhere. That leaves Elena Tisnovsky's family scrambling to get documents out of Ukraine in the middle of a war. For now, her relatives are staying with strangers in Frankfurt.

TISNOVSKY: Right now my family has a solution, an accommodation, but what will happen in three months? What about six months or eight? What about a year?

ROSE: They're still trying to get a U.S. visa for Tisnovsky's sister-in-law. But Tisnovsky says they also have a backup plan, in case that takes too long.

TISNOVSKY: She made a decision to send the children to the United States to live with us, and then she would come back to my brother in Ukraine to be with him.

ROSE: They hope it doesn't come to that, that the U.S. will live up to its rhetoric and let them in with open arms. But they also know that the war is forcing Ukrainians into difficult choices and leaving families scattered around the world. Joel Rose, NPR News.


Joel Rose is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk. He covers immigration and breaking news.