EVERETT — Angelina Nesterenko’s relatives take pride in the life they’ve made for her in the United States.
Since arriving two years ago, the mentally disabled teen has been able to attend school for the first time. That was an opportunity denied her in Ukraine.
After starting in a special education program at Mariner High School, she grew more outgoing and learned some English.
Though unable to care for herself, she nevertheless reached new milestones. She can get dressed and tell people when she’s hungry. She no longer needs a family member at her side throughout the night.
Unlike in their home country, Angelina’s family feels comfortable taking her out in public, knowing she won’t be subjected to ridicule.
“No one laughs at her here,” her mother, Oksana Nesterenko, said in Russian. “There, people would look at her and laugh.”
Last month, their new sense of belonging came into doubt, along with Angelina’s U.S. immigration status.
After a March 24 interview with an immigration officer in Seattle, the south Everett family was told to expect green cards for Angelina, who turned 18 in May, and her two younger sisters, Nataliya, 14, and Rufina, 12.
Instead, they got a call and an April 2 follow-up letter informing them that the three sisters no longer have legal immigration status in the United States. That’s because their visitor visas expired. To get green cards, the girls might have to go back to a part of Ukraine in the throes of civil war. And they could spend years waiting for permission to return to the U.S.
That nasty surprise sent the Nesterenkos headlong into the Byzantine world of U.S. immigration law. They’ve spent thousands of dollars on attorneys with no guarantee they’ll prevail.
Most deportees are criminals
Seattle-based immigration agents deported 4,525 undocumented immigrants from Washington, Oregon and Alaska during the 2013 fiscal year, an agency spokesman said. More than two-thirds had been convicted of a crime.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents focus on people believed to pose a public safety risk because they have the resources to remove only a tiny fraction — an estimated 4 percent — of the people in the United States illegally.
Given that reality, it’s highly unlikely that immigration agents would swoop in to take any of the Nesterenko daughters into custody. But the family remains worried.
“Legally, technically, they can,” said Dema Nesterenko, the eldest of Angelina’s siblings.
While deportation may seem far-fetched, the lack of paperwork presents an obstacle that will hamper the girls’ ability to build lives here through work and education.
Son paved way for family
Dema, 30, was the first family member to arrive in the United States. He came in 2006 as a political refugee. He said he faced persecution for his activism on behalf of Angelina and people like her in Ukraine, where government corruption and intolerance for political dissent have sparked two revolutions in the past decade.
He now works as an organizer for home healthcare workers with Local 775NW of the Service Employees International Union. He helped translate interviews with family members.
After getting his U.S. citizenship more than two years ago, Dema set about bringing his family here.
“I’m going to do anything it takes,” he remembered thinking.
He secured green cards for his parents, Oksana and Sergii Nesterenko. Oksana arrived in the U.S. in May 2012 with her three daughters, who traveled without green cards, on B-2 visitor visas. Sergii rejoined the family in November 2012.
While relatively easy for a U.S. citizen to secure green cards for parents, it’s difficult for siblings. The current wait time is more than a dozen years.
The family hoped to apply for the daughters’ green cards in the United States. They settled in.
Everett and the surrounding suburbs are home to one of the 10 largest Ukrainian communities in the United States, behind regions in Pennsylvania, California and New York.
The Nesterenkos, including Oksana’s parents, live in a duplex near Paine Field. Oksana works in a Russian bakery and Sergii as a welder. The children attend local schools. The two younger daughters study violin.
Angelina thrived in the Mukilteo School District, where special education programs are tailored to individual students. It’s not unusual for the district to see students with special needs arrive from other countries without any formal schooling.
“In some countries, they don’t protect the rights of students who are disabled, so we do often see that,” district spokesman Andy Muntz said.
The family attends Spring of Life, a Baptist church in Mukilteo.
“In two years, they built their life from scratch,” Dema said.
“Bad advice” leads to painful dilemma
The April 2 denial letter from immigration authorities threatened to dash their American dream.
They hadn’t realized the U.S. visitor visas, while valid for five years, only allowed the children a total of six months here. A call from the immigration officer who conducted the interview, and a follow-up letter, were the first signs of trouble.
“We got bad advice from a lawyer,” Dema said.
Now they’re in a bind.
Angelina cannot live on her own. She needs help showering and making it through other basic parts of her daily routine.
It’s unthinkable for the parents to send the daughters to Ukraine on their own.
“We don’t have anything left there,” Dema said. “My parents sold their house.”
The parents also could lose their green cards if they stay for too long outside the United States.
Those aren’t the only problems with returning to Ukraine.
The family comes from the eastern Donetsk region, where pro-Russian insurgents and Ukrainian forces are engaged in open warfare.
Last week, Ukrainian military air strikes killed dozens at Donetsk airport, where militiamen had sheltered. Rebels on Thursday shot down a Ukrainian military helicopter, leaving 14 dead, including a general.
President-elect Petro Poroshenko, a billionaire candy mogul who won last week’s elections, has offered the eastern regions of his country more autonomy, but also promised to quell the armed insurgency.
The Nesterenkos have never felt homesick and wouldn’t go back if they could, Dema said.
“There’s no way, especially now,” he said. “It’s just impossible. We’re so lucky that we’re here.”
Cousins and friends kept them up on the havoc in eastern Ukraine. They’ve had trouble reaching some relatives there during the past couple of weeks.
Petition filed for asylum
In late May, the family petitioned the U.S. government to grant the daughters asylum. The cases rest on a combination of Angelina’s disability and political unrest in Ukraine. As practicing Baptists, the Nesterenkos also cite a fear of religious persecution in predominantly Orthodox Christian Ukraine.
Ordinarily, people cannot apply for asylum if they’ve been in the United States for more than a year.
Citizenship and Immigration Services was unable to comment on the family’s situation.
“I couldn’t really speak to their case even if I had their files in front of me, because they have a federally guaranteed right to privacy,” said Sharon Rummery, a San Francisco-based spokeswoman for the agency. “Every case is viewed on its own merits.”
People from countries ravaged by war, natural disaster or other extraordinary circumstances sometimes get temporary permission to live in the United States. The Homeland Security secretary must designate a specific country for protected status. The Nesterenkos aren’t eligible because Ukraine isn’t on the list, which includes Syria, Haiti, Somalia, Sudan, South Sudan and parts of Central America.
Angelina dreamed of going to school
Angelina is quiet around visitors, but flashes a pleasant smile. At home last month, she wore a T-shirt emblazoned with a pink, glittery dinosaur sporting a mustache and the lettering “Stachasaurus.”
Angelina’s developmental delays have left her with the mental ability of a 4- or 5-year-old, Dema said. She has a sharp memory — the person to ask when you’ve misplaced your wallet or cellphone charger.
She has trouble with coordination. She can walk, but loses balance when she tries to run. If she trips, she lacks the coordination to break the fall.
Her family isn’t sure what caused her condition, or even what to call it. They suspect it may stem from being deprived of oxygen during her mother’s difficult labor. They didn’t realize anything was wrong until she failed to walk or talk as a toddler.
In Ukraine, an official medical designation left Angelina stigmatized, implying she posed a threat to society. Doctors and schools offered little hope. Without her family providing full-time care, she faced dim prospects in a government facility.
Things had been looking up since her arrival in the states, where she, like all special education students, can remain in school until she’s 21.
Back in Ukraine, Angelina would ask why she couldn’t go with her sisters to study. Her mom bought her a backpack so she wouldn’t feel left out, though she remained excluded from the classroom.
Since starting school, she has a newfound sense of dignity. She can write her name in English, something she never learned in her native Russian.
“Angelina never went to school ever, and it was her dream to go to school,” Dema said. “I’m sure in Ukraine if she got this attention when she was little, she’d be in a different place.”
Noah Haglund: 425-339-3465; firstname.lastname@example.org.