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A 14-year-old who fled Ukraine is in U.S. detention. His family doesn't know where.

Iryna Merezhko at the Los Angeles pharmacy where she works.
Grace Widyatmadja/NPR
Iryna Merezhko at the Los Angeles pharmacy where she works.

When she traveled from her home in Los Angeles to Ukraine earlier this month to bring her 14-year-old nephew Ivan to safety, Iryna Merezhko did not expect to lose track of him at the U.S.-Mexico border.

From Ukraine, she and Ivan traveled to Tijuana, Mexico. At the border crossing with San Diego, they asked U.S. border agents to let Ivan in on humanitarian grounds, something thousands of Ukrainians have done since the Biden administration said it would accept 100,000 refugees fleeing the war. Merezhko knew that because she was Ivan's aunt and not his mother, the agents might temporarily detain him.

And that's just what she says the agent who processed Ivan's request told them would happen: that he'd be held in detention for a day or two, before being reunited with his aunt.

"They said one day, maybe two," Merezhko said.

Seven days later, Merezhko has no idea where Ivan is being held. And despite a policy allowing children detained at the border to have contact with relatives at least twice a week, neither Merezhko nor any member of Ivan's family has heard from him. A day after she said goodbye to him at the border on April 8, Merezhko says she got a phone call from an official who told her it could take 30 days for Ivan to get out, and that she should wait for a call. But the official offered no other information.

"We know nothing," Merezhko said. "We don't even know if he's still in California."

Ivan's mother, Catarina, who stayed in Ukraine to support the war effort, now regrets having sent her son.

"If I knew this would happen, I would have kept him here in the war zone," Merezhko said her sister told her through tears during a phone call this week. "At least I would know where he is."

Ivan is not unlike thousands of other children from Central America, Afghanistan or elsewhere who've arrived at the border in recent years and months and requested temporary admission to the United States on humanitarian grounds.

Border agents are required by law to turn unaccompanied children who arrive at the border over to the custody of the Office of Refugee Resettlement, an agency within the Department of Health and Human Services. That includes children like Ivan, who arrive with family members who are not their parents. Government officials then house the children in a network of detention centers for minors as they determine whether the adult intending to care for them in the United States has permission from the child's parent and is otherwise qualified to do so.

Agency data indicate that as of December it was taking an average of 37 days for the government to vet these U.S. sponsors and release qualified children from detention. The length of Ivan's detention so far is still well below that average.

What has led Iryna Merezhko and her family to despair is not knowing where he is, and the feeling that the border agents who processed Ivan duped them into thinking he would be out quickly. Until now, she says, the Department of Health and Human Services has also not honored its promise – written into policy – that Ivan would get to contact family twice a week.

Ivan and his mother said a tearful goodbye in Ukraine early last week, before he and his aunt Iryna boarded a train to Poland and began a several-day journey across Europe to Mexico. All along the way, Ivan insisted on calling his mother several times a day to make sure she and his father — supporting Ukrainian troops on the front lines — were still alive.

Iryna Merezhko, with her nephew Ivan, at a shelter in Tijuana, Mexico, last week, a day before they presented themselves at the U.S. border and asked that Ivan be admitted on humanitarian grounds.
/ Carlos A. Moreno for NPR
Carlos A. Moreno for NPR
Iryna Merezhko, with her nephew Ivan, at a shelter in Tijuana, Mexico, last week, a day before they presented themselves at the U.S. border and asked that Ivan be admitted on humanitarian grounds.

His aunt Iryna has spent the last week dwelling on the anguish she imagines he must be feeling at not knowing whether his parents have been killed in the war. Merezhko, a pharmacist in Los Angeles, said she has been hanging by her phone waiting for a call from Ivan or a government official.

Ivan and his aunt spoke with NPR in Tijuana last week, at a shelter that has housed thousands of Ukrainians as they've waited their turn to present themselves at the U.S. border. He said he was excited about coming to California, but missed the family and friends he left behind. "My heart," he called them. His aunt was zealously guarding the thick stack of notarized documents that her sister Catarina had handed her to ease Ivan's entry into the United States.

Adrian Eng-Gastelum, a spokesman for the Department of Health and Human Services, declined to discuss specific cases out of privacy and security concerns. He also said the agency could not provide data about how many children have been detained since Ukrainians began arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border in March.

In a written statement, he said, "children have access to medical treatment, legal services, translation services, and mental and behavioral health counselors and are able to connect with family at least twice a week. Children also meet with a case manager at least weekly."

Cecilia Barreda, a spokeswoman for U.S. Customs and Border Protection, also declined to answer questions about specific cases.

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Adrian Florido
Adrian Florido is a national correspondent for NPR covering race and identity in America.