Ukrainians in Dane County wait months amid huge work permit backlogs
STOUGHTON, Wis. – A truck driver, a hospital worker, a school teacher and a piano teacher: Four Ukrainians who have resettled in Stoughton since war brought them to the United States in April have had dynamic careers that they left at home.
Here in the United States, they are still waiting to resume those jobs. Federal work permit backlogs, however, have left the Sokor and Romashchenko families in limbo for months since they arrived on humanitarian parole in April.
“We want to be useful,” said Peter Sokor. “We would say in Ukraine, ‘We are sitting on somebody’s shoulders.’ We don’t want to sit like that, we want to work, be useful, do something, pay taxes.
Months of Waiting for Ukrainian Families in Wisconsin, Nationwide
When the families arrived in Wisconsin, a small, rapidly growing local group helped them settle in Stoughton – finding and fitting out their apartments and helping with the costs of rent, food and utilities.
RELATED: ‘We Are So Grateful’: In Stoughton, Growing Ukrainian Refugee Effort and Gaping Need
The Stoughton Resettlement Assistance Program (SRAP) has grown, applied for 501(c)(3) status and is about to add several more Ukrainian families to the growing neighborhood.
But meanwhile, the two families who arrived first – just at the start of the war – are still waiting for their work permits so they can join the workforce and leave behind the charity of others.
“We’ve been waiting for months already and it’s a bit difficult because we don’t just want to sit down,” said Peter, translating for Viacheslav Romashchenko.
Viacheslav – or “Slava” – was a truck driver in Ukraine and, like his wife and two friends, has a job waiting for him in Dane County once his work permit is cleared. He makes the group laugh and more than once they affectionately call him the prankster: when a SRAP co-founder recently asked him if his family needed anything, he was quick to respond.
“Work permit! Work permit! Work permit!” he said. (He and his wife speak little English, but study regularly.)
His wife worked in a home hospital. Peter was a piano teacher now studying to change careers to computer programming at Madison College. Peter’s wife, Kseniia, is a teacher and now volunteers at her daughters’ school in Stoughton while she waits for the permit that would unlock paid employment in the district.
“If our country offered and invited them to our country – which we did, and we are happy that they are here; our community is so much richer for it,” said SPOR co-founder Renee Lushaj. “Then we have to make sure we have the infrastructure and the capacity in place to be able to help them help themselves. They are waiting to do so.
The two families are far from the only Dane County refugees waiting for work permits. The Dane County Immigration Affairs Office, opened in 2017 and housed in its Department of Social Services, currently handles cases for twelve Ukrainian families. Eleven of them are still waiting for their permits; the only family that has theirs arrived before the war.
“We must continue to press our government to really help these families,” said Fabiola Hamdan, head of immigration affairs. “Once you move to another country, financial stability comes first so you can get on with your life.”
Hamdan said work permit backlogs had a similar impact on Afghan refugees who resettled in Dane County (between 70 and 80 have resettled in the county since the Taliban takeover).
“You have your hands tied when that happens,” Hamdan said. “For someone to bring stability to their family, you would like to work.”
As thousands wait, senators call for backlog fixes
This summer, amid a surge of 100,000 Ukrainian refugees and continuing concerns about Afghan refugee job applications, senators from both parties called on United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) to improve their wait times for Employment Authorization Document (EAD) applications. .
In June, Senator Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) in a letter to the Department of Homeland Security cited a backlog of applications of 1.5 million, with wait times doubling from 2.6 months to 4.2 months between 2017 and 2022.
“My staff are working with people who have come to the United States ready to work but are unable to cope with these long processing times,” Sen. Shaheen wrote, urging USCIS to take action. “We met young professionals, including refugees from Ukraine and Afghanistan, who are eager to use their skills in the United States but cannot work and support their families.”
In a statement Thursday, Senators Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn) and Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) announced another letter directed at the head of USCIS, saying “thousands” of Ukrainians who had arrived just in April of this year (before the Biden administration implemented United for Ukraine program) were still waiting for their work permit. Some were told to expect to wait a year.
“These delays are not only devastating for refugees seeking to support themselves and their families, they are also a barrier to enriching their new communities with their skills and talents,” the letter said. “It’s all the more frustrating as businesses across the country continue to struggle to find the workers they need to operate.”
US Senators have the ability to apply to USCIS for expedited work permits on behalf of voters. Wisconsin Democratic Senator Tammy Baldwin was contacted on behalf of the Romashchenko and Sokor families, as well as others in the county.
His office tried unsuccessfully to secure expedited permits for one of the families as well as other Ukrainian refugees; for the other family, they are still waiting for additional information.
Based on N3I reviews of communications between family representatives and lawmakers or attorneys, the delays for both families are based on technicalities and elaborate red tape. Both are considering potentially months more before being cleared.
“We have [two] families ready and willing to work,” Lushaj said. “But they’re just waiting for the paperwork. We did everything we could on our side.
News 3 Investigates spoke with a USCIS spokesperson earlier this week, who promised a response by Thursday evening to questions related to backlogs in Wisconsin, but had yet to respond at the time of the publication.
Before the Trump administration, work permits had to be issued within 90 days — a rule that hasn’t been reinstated under the Biden administration as backlogs mount, immigration lawyers tell News 3 Investigates .
Today USCIS says their processing times for Ukrainians arriving on parole (as did the Romashchenko and Sokor families) is 5.5 months.
Meanwhile, families must wait, occupying their time as best they can by caring for their school-aged children, volunteering, and investing in English and other studies.
But they would like to be able to pay their bills on their own.
As Peter said, “I want to be useful to this society.”
Join investigative reporter Naomi Kowles on this week’s show For registration Sunday at 10:30 a.m. to hear more about work permit backlogs hampering refugees’ efforts to move forward.
Want to help with refugee resettlement efforts in Stoughton? Learn more here, or stop by Coffee4All Bistro Cafe September 23-25 for a Ukrainian weekend filled with cultural fare, music, art and more. 10% of profits will be donated to SRAP.
Lane Kimble contributed to this report.
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