Facebook Twitter

Opinion: Fleeing Ukrainians run straight into Washington’s failures. Here’s what happened to Ganna

Inhumane treatment, long a hallmark of the treatment of immigrants from the south, is traumatizing refugees already scarred by war, who are coming because President Biden said they are welcome

SHARE Opinion: Fleeing Ukrainians run straight into Washington’s failures. Here’s what happened to Ganna
Ganna and Bradley Harrison take a photo together in Yellowstone National Park three years ago.

Ganna and Bradley Harrison take a photo together in Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming on July 30, 2019.

Bradley Harrison

Is this what President Joe Biden meant by opening the“full range of legal pathways” to help Ukrainian refugees come to America?

Did he mean throwing them in cells — 22 in one that is 30 square meters, with a bench that could seat three people, at most, and with one toilet, exposed in the middle of the room for all to use? 

Did he mean for people who had escaped the hell of cluster bombs and constant shelling, who view America as the beacon of liberty, to sleep on a yoga mat with one foil blanket, using their shoes for a pillow?

Did he mean for them to be in this space for days at a time with no outside contact, no one willing to answer questions and no information as to when they might be released, or where?

And did he mean for these conditions to be the same for pregnant women and the elderly, just as for everyone else?

By now, the story of Brad Harrison, of Utah, his Ukrainian wife Ganna (known by her friends as Anna), and their young daughter Sofia, an American citizen, has been recounted by the Deseret News and other media outlets. She spent nearly five days in what could best be described as a prison, and she was anything but alone.

Their story has a happy ending. When I spoke to the family on Tuesday, they were in a car, driving north of San Diego on their way to Utah. But the harrowing experience Ganna had to endure — after escaping her home in Kharkiv amid constant shelling — was still fresh on her mind.

And the real reason she had to endure it ought to be clear. Washington’s good intentions toward Ukrainian refugees has run headlong into Washington’s own failure, for decades, to pass any meaningful sort of immigration reform or provide for a workable processing system at the southern border. 

Border patrol agents are used to handling Latin American immigrants, not people from Ukraine, Russia and other neighboring countries who have escaped war by flying to Mexico, where no visa is required, in hopes of entering the United States from the south. They apparently are used to treating all they encounter as criminals and giving them substandard care.

It ought to be obvious that no one, regardless of skin color or nation of origin, should be treated the way Ganna described her ordeal. 

But the border is ill-equipped to treat people humanely. We’ve known this for many years and through several administrations. The Ukrainian crisis has only brought it into high relief. Maybe this will be enough to force change; to break through the political barriers that seem as rock solid as the doors that kept Ganna imprisoned.

A report by Reuters said that, as of Sunday night, an estimated 1,700 Ukrainians had arrived in Tijuana, where Ganna eventually crossed the border. The numbers are expected to grow. Like Ganna, they had heard Biden say they would be welcomed, so they came.

Without a better system — without translators who speak Ukrainian and Russian and a sharp increase both in medical professionals and authorities who can process paperwork — the goodwill of Americans anxious to help shell-shocked Europeans will sour as the U.S. puts them through more needless suffering.

In Ganna’s case, she had the support of Utah’s two senators, Mike Lee and Mitt Romney, as well as state Sen. Mike McKell, R-Spanish Fork, who had been told of her arrival in advance. Together, these politicians had sent letters and emails to border officials explaining when Brad and Ganna would arrive, what type of car they were driving, what her situation was, and instructing them to give her humanitarian parole. 

But when Brad, an Air Force veteran, pulled the family up to the border station, none of this mattered.

“She was instantly a criminal,” Brad said. “I really appreciate all the work these senators did, but it was for naught. They (border patrol agents) absolutely went into robot mode at the border and took her into custody.”

She was allowed a suitcase with a change of clothes, but this was quickly confiscated, as was her jewelry and her cellphone.

“We used every square centimeter (of the cell),” she told me. “It was like in a movie scene. Three times they fed us per day, at 6:30 a.m., 12 and 5 p.m. — cold sandwiches, one apple, one juice, water from a tap next to the toilet. No time, no clock, no window. Only cold air from the air conditioner.”

Ganna also had the benefit of an attorney Brad had hired to try to win her release, but this didn’t help, either. Border patrol kept telling him they had no record of Ganna. Officials from Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, said the same. She seemed lost in an impersonal system. 

She speaks English, so she made herself useful translating, helping other refugees who didn’t know what was happening.

She described one elderly woman with her grown daughter, who entered the cell wide-eyed and frightened. “These people were saying, ‘Why are we here? We didn’t do anything criminal. We have a sister in the USA we are going to meet.’”

She comforted them by saying it would only be a couple of days, but she knew it probably would be longer.

In the end, Ganna’s case was heard and she was let out a door into America. Officials refused to call her husband, she said, even though he had given the officers his number. Her phone was returned to her with no charge. Border agents pointed her toward a McDonald’s and told her she might get help there. She found a security guard in the restaurant who let her use his phone.

Brad said it looked as if most people who came to the detention facility eventually were admitted to the United States. I’m not so certain.  

What I am certain of is that the nation’s southern border is a mess, that many politicians are to blame, and that the United States must do better at treating all people as human beings deserving of compassion.