A month ago, Ganna Harrison was hiding in her apartment in Kharkiv, Ukraine, as Russian forces began shelling the city.
Now, after spending nearly five days detained at the U.S.-Mexico border by U.S. Customs and Border Patrol, as her family was left with no idea where she was, she’s reunited with them.
For days, her husband, Bradley Harrison, was holed up in a Best Western in San Ysidro, California, while his attorney hounded officials from CBP and Immigration and Customs Enforcement trying to figure out where and why his wife was being detained.
“She’s probably in a jumpsuit and shackles, for all I know,” Harrison said earlier Monday, going on 88 hours of silence from border officials.
A few hours later, Ganna was released from custody, walked over to a McDonald’s, borrowed a phone from a security guard and called Bradley. The family still has no explanation as to why she was detained.
It’s a happy development in what had been a “nightmare” ending to a harrowing month for Ganna and the couple’s 10-year-old daughter, Sofia.
The mother and daughter were in Kharkiv, Ukraine, when Russian forces invaded — Bradley had left about 10 days earlier. Like many in Ukraine, the family thought if there was a war, it would be isolated to separatist-controlled Donetsk and Luhansk in the east.
But on Feb. 24, the bombs started falling and Bradley watched in horror, thousands of miles away, as a massive invasion unfolded.
For three days, Ganna and Sofia hid in their apartment, the shelling so intense that they couldn’t make it to a bomb shelter.
But Ganna eventually sensed a lull. Around 7:30 a.m. on Feb. 27, she and Sofia left the apartment, taking with them a 70-year-old mother and stepson from a neighboring apartment, then meeting up with Harrison’s sister and brother-in-law.
What followed was a tense, six-day journey across central Ukraine. The group drove over 12 hours each day, avoiding main roads and big cities, and texting friends around the country for updates as the invasion ramped up.
Ganna and Sofia eventually met friends on the Romanian border, who drove them to Bucharest. For almost three weeks the two stayed there as refugees.
Sofia is an American citizen — so is Bradley. And Ganna was in the final stages of applying for a visa.
Bradley had approached his state senator and attorney in Utah, Mike McKell, R-Spanish Fork, weeks before the Russian invasion began, for help with the immigration process.
McKell referred the family to immigration attorney Mari Tsosie, who helped Ganna submit her form I-130, the first step an eligible relative of a U.S. citizen takes before obtaining a green card.
All she needed was to interview at the U.S. consulate in Ukraine, but the Russian invasion upended everything. Because she had no visa, Ganna couldn’t buy a plane ticket to the U.S. But she could buy one to Mexico.
So Ganna and Sofia left Romania, flying into Mexico City, then to the border city Tijuana.
Bradley drove in from San Diego, where he met his wife and daughter. Before they even tried crossing the border, they obtained letters of support from Utah Republican Sens. Mitt Romney and Mike Lee, as well as McKell.
Tsosie says the family had a boilerplate argument for being granted humanitarian parole. If it was denied, she could apply for asylum.
The family packed into Bradley’s car and got in line at the port of entry. “My wife wants to request humanitarian parole,” Bradley told the border patrol agent. They were ushered into a secondary area, where agents confiscated Ganna’s phone, then brought her into a room while Bradley and Sofia waited.
“She came back crying about 10 minutes later, saying that they were going to keep her for one or two days,” Bradley said.
In the days that followed, Tsosie said both CBP and ICE didn’t know where Ganna was.
After Ganna had been detained for 24 hours, Tsosie traveled to the CBP facility herself. “It doesn’t matter whether they have legal documentation or not, you can’t detain someone indefinitely without even giving them a cellphone or having their attorney present,” she said.
The agents, Tsosie says, at first questioned her credentials. They responded: “We don’t know who you are, we don’t even know if you’re an attorney,” she claims. But when she showed them Ganna’s documents, including the form I-130 that Tsosie helped her file, the agents said they couldn’t talk to her anymore.
CBP’s jurisdiction ends 125 miles north of the border, and the agency can’t detain many people in its facility near San Diego, says Tsosie. Often detainees are transferred into ICE custody, so she checked with them. Ganna hadn’t been transferred to an ICE facility, they said, and the agency didn’t know who or where she was.
Then on Monday Tsosie heard back from an attorney with the Office of the Assistant Chief Counsel for U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
“I can’t find your client in CBP custody,” the attorney wrote. “So I’m not sure if CBP will be able to help you.”
She heard back from another attorney for CBP Monday, who again told her he was unaware of the Harrisons’ situation, but said he would look into it. It’s unusual for a detainee to be held for so long with so little communication, the attorney told her.
“She can’t be lost in the system. This is completely unconstitutional ... this is a nightmare,” said Tsosie on Monday, before Ganna reappeared. “At this point, I’m not asking to even release her, I’m asking to just tell me where the wife of this U.S. citizen, and the mother of this U.S. citizen child, is. You can at least tell me where she’s at, and I can go from there.”
Bradley was in shock. Ganna was denied access to the U.S. last year after trying to enter on a visitors visa, but she wasn’t deported — that’s the only thing he and Tsosie think could have caused a hangup at the border.
But late Monday evening, Ganna was released. McKell told the Deseret News she was detained in a room with other women who spoke Ukrainian or Russian. The group slept on the floor, using their clothes as blankets and shoes as pillows.
They still have no explanation as to why Ganna, who has no criminal history, was detained. Or why she was denied access to her attorney.
“She escaped the Russians only to be captured by the Americans,” he said, prior to Ganna’s release. “She escaped the Russian gulag, and now she’s in an American one.”
‘I’m mad as hell’
In an effort to ease the burden on countries in Eastern Europe, the Biden administration recently announced the U.S. will accept 100,000 Ukrainian refugees, extending the “full range of legal pathways” to people fleeing the war.
In addition to temporary protected status and asylum, they can apply for humanitarian parole, special immigrant visas or the refugee admission program.
The situation is volatile. In just one month, the Russian invasion triggered the worst humanitarian crisis since World War II, as 4.2 million Ukrainians have fled the country since Feb. 24, according to the latest numbers from the U.N.
Governments in Eastern Europe, especially Poland, Moldova and Romania, are overwhelmed, according to human rights groups, and many refugees are instead electing to fly to Mexico and enter the U.S. through the southern border, where they can apply for humanitarian parole or asylum.
Bradley Harrison saw it for himself when first arrived at the Tijuana airport to pick up his wife and daughter. There, he says, he met a religious leader from Massachusetts who was helping up to 300 Ukrainians cross the border each day.
“He told me he’d lost count of how many people that day they were helping,” Harrison said. “They would drive them to the border, tell them they are requesting humanitarian parole, and there would be a church member on the other side that would take them in.”
This makes Ganna’s detention even more puzzling for McKell, who says his frustration “still hasn’t gone down” after her release.
“It’s been eye-opening to see how they treated her,” said McKell.
McKell had issued a public statement urging the Department of Homeland Security, which CPS and ICE are under, to release Harrison.
“This mistreatment is unacceptable.” he said in the statement, saying her experience “makes me wonder how many other Ukrainians are in custody and being treated similarly.”
It’s been 5 days with ZERO updates. The administration has declared that the US will take 100,000 Ukrainian refugees. Let’s start with the wife of an American citizen and Air Force Veteran. Let’s start with the mother of a 10-year-old US citizen. This is not right! https://t.co/My5r93Z587— Mike McKell (@mikemckellutah) April 4, 2022
Correction: An earlier version incorrectly stated Bradley Harrison was staying at a hotel in Tijuana, Mexico. He has since moved to a hotel in San Ysidro, California.