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Ukrainian children are being separated from extended family at the U.S.-Mexico border

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The Biden administration is accepting a hundred thousand Ukrainian refugees fleeing Russia's invasion of their country. Thousands of these refugees are coming in through the U.S.-Mexico border, where immigration agents now fast-track their entry into the country. While many families get in quickly, not all do, and some are being separated from their children, as NPR's Adrian Florido reports.

ADRIAN FLORIDO, BYLINE: In Tijuana, Mexico earlier this month, I met Iryna Merezhko who had just traveled to Ukraine to pick up her nephew, Ivan, and bring him to stay with her in Los Angeles until the war in Ukraine is over. His plan in the U.S., Ivan told me, was to study.

IVAN YERASHOV: I will study American English. And the culture - American - I will study.

IRYNA MEREZHKO: Culture.

YERASHOV: Culture.

FLORIDO: Ivan is a floppy-haired 14-year-old. He said he'd left his heart in Ukraine.

YERASHOV: My heart - where is my friends and my family. I miss him - them.

FLORIDO: His father couldn't leave Ukraine because he is of fighting age. His mother stayed, too, to support Ukrainian troops - a patriot her sister called her.

MEREZHKO: It's the reason why she isn't here - yeah. I am proud of her, to be honest.

FLORIDO: The day after I met them in Tijuana, Merezhko took her nephew to the U.S. border crossing, along with the stack of notarized documents that her sister gave her. At the border, Ivan asked immigration agents to let him enter the country on humanitarian grounds. The agents said they'd first have to detain him for a day or two while the documents were verified. His aunt hugged Ivan and said she'd be there when he got out. Ten days later, Ivan is still in detention. His aunt, Iryna, has been desperate to find out where he is and to hear from him. She's back in Los Angeles with only a number for a government hotline.

MEREZHKO: They couldn't tell us where he is right now. They said, just wait - just wait for calls from officer.

FLORIDO: Ivan's detention is not unusual. Border agents are required by law to detain children who arrive at the border alone or with someone other than a parent and turn them over to the Department of Health and Human Services. HHS houses them in detention centers for minors until the person trying to bring them into the U.S. has been vetted. Lately, that process has been taking about a month on average. Iryna Merezhko is furious that border agents told her it would be only a day or two and that after 10 days, her family still hadn't heard from Ivan. She knows he's worried about his parents still in a war zone.

MEREZHKO: And he doesn't know even - are they alive?

FLORIDO: Government officials declined to speak about Ivan's case. A spokesman for the Department of Health and Human Services said only that children in their custody get good care while officials work to vet their sponsors and release them from custody.

CASEY REVKIN: I think people don't understand that families are still being separated at the border.

FLORIDO: Casey Revkin is a co-director of Each Step Home, a nonprofit that helps families separated from children at the border find and reunite with them. They started this work several years ago when family separation at the border started dominating the news.

REVKIN: They know that zero tolerance was a policy of the Trump administration that ended, but they don't know that kids are being separated from their grandmothers, their aunts, their uncles and their siblings and taken into detention and that it takes weeks or months to reunite them.

FLORIDO: While Ukrainian refugees at the border are being fast-tracked into the country, the rules for children who arrive without their parents are the same for all children, regardless of where they're from, Revkin says. The detention is often made worse because it can take a long time for sponsors to get in touch with their child. Molly Surazhsky learned of this the hard way. In late March, she traveled to the border with Liza, a 17-year-old family friend from Ukraine. The girl has been detained ever since. Surazhsky understands the need to vet sponsors but said she's been urging other Ukrainians considering sending their children to the U.S. with relatives or friends to be prepared for a long separation.

MOLLY SURAZHSKY: You know, for people who are just, you know, survivors of war, like, it's just creating further trauma for children and for families.

FLORIDO: Surazhsky finally got a bit of good news today - after weeks of frantic phone calls, Liza is getting out of detention tomorrow. Adrian Florido, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.