‘We want to work’: Ukrainians in Dane County wait months amid massive 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 the war drove them to the United States in April had vibrant careers they left behind at home.

Here in the states, they’re still waiting to resume those jobs. Federal work permit backlogs, however, have left the Sokor and Romashchenko families in a months-long limbo since they arrived in April on humanitarian parole.

“We want to be useful,” Peter Sokor said. “We would say in Ukraine, ‘We are sitting on someone’s shoulders.’ We don’t want to sit like this. We want to work, be useful, do something, pay taxes.”

Months-long waits for Ukrainian families in Wisconsin, nationwide

When the families arrived in Wisconsin, a quickly-developing small local group helped them settle in Stoughton — finding and furnishing their apartments and helping cover the costs of rent, food and utilities.

RELATED: ‘We are so grateful’: In Stoughton, a growing Ukrainian refugee effort and a gaping need

Stoughton Resettlement Assistance Program (SRAP) has grown, filed for 501(c)(3) status, and is about to add several more Ukrainian families to the growing neighborhood.

But while that’s happened, the two families who arrived first–just as the war was beginning–are still waiting for their work authorizations so they can join the workforce and leave behind the charity of others.

“We are waiting for months already and it’s a little bit difficult because we don’t want to just sit,” Peter said, translating for Viacheslav Romashchenko.

Viacheslav — or “Slava” — was a truck driver in Ukraine and like his wife and two friends, has a job lined up and waiting for him in Dane County once his work permit is authorized. He keeps the group laughing and more than once they fondly call him the jokester: when a SRAP cofounder asked him recently if his family needed anything, he was quick with a response.

“Work permit! Work permit! Work permit!” he said. (He and his wife speak little English, but are studying on a regular basis.)

His wife worked in a hospital at home. Peter was a piano teacher who is now studying to make a career change into computer programming at Madison College. Peter’s wife Kseniia is a teacher, who is now volunteering at her daughters’ school in Stoughton while she waits on the permit that would unlock a paid job in the district.

“If our country offered, and invited them into our country–which we did, and we’re happy they’re here; our community is so much richer for it,” SRAP cofounder Renee Lushaj said. “Then we have to make sure we have the infrastructure and capacity in place to be able to help them help themselves. They’re waiting to do that.”

The two families are far from the only refugees in Dane County waiting for work authorizations. Dane County’s office of Immigration Affairs, started in 2017 and housed in their Human Services department, is managing the casework for twelve Ukrainian families currently. Eleven of them are still waiting for their permits; the only family who has theirs arrived before the war.

“We have to keep pressuring our government to really help these families,” Immigration Affairs supervisor Fabiola Hamdan said. “Once you move to another country, financial stability comes first so you can move on with your life.”

Hamdan said the work permit backlogs similarly impacted the Afghan refugees that resettled in Dane County (between 70 and 80 resettled in the county since the Taliban takeover.)

“You have your hands tied when this happens,” Hamdan said. “For somebody to provide stability to their families, you would like to work.”

As thousands wait, senators push for backlog fixes

This summer, amid a wave of 100,000 Ukrainian refugees as well as ongoing concerns with Afghan refugee work applications, senators from both parties have called on the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) to improve their wait times for employment authorization document (EAD) applications.

In June, Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) in a letter to the Department of Homeland Security cited a 1.5 million application backlog, with wait times doubling from 2.6 months to 4.2 months between 2017 and 2022.

“My staff is working with individuals who arrived in the U.S. ready to work but are unable to do so in the face of these long processing times,” Sen. Shaheen wrote, urging USCIS to take action. “We have encountered young professionals, including refugees from Ukraine and Afghanistan, who are eager to use their skills in the U.S. but cannot work and support their families.”

In a statement on Thursday, Senators Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn) and Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) announced other letter directed to the head of USCIS, saying “thousands” of Ukrainians who had arrived just in April this year (before the Biden administration implemented the Uniting for Ukraine program) were still awaiting their work permits. Some had been told to expect to wait a year.

“These delays aren’t just devastating to refugees who are eager to provide for themselves and their families, they’re also a barrier to enriching their new communities with their skills and talents,” the letter stated. “This is all the more frustrating as businesses across the country continue to struggle to find the workers they need to operate.”

U.S. senators have the ability to ask the USCIS for expedited work permits on behalf of constituents. Wisconsin’s Democratic senator Tammy Baldwin was contacted on the behalf of the Romashchenko and Sokor families, as well as others in the county.

Her office tried unsuccessfully to obtain expedited permits for one of the families as well as other Ukrainian refugees; for the other family, they are still awaiting additional information.

Based on N3I reviews of communications between representatives for the family and lawmakers or attorneys, delays for both families are based in technicalities and elaborate red tape. Both are looking at potentially months more before they’re authorized.

“We have [two] families ready and willing and begging to work,” Lushaj said. “But they are just waiting on paperwork. We’ve done as much as we can on our end.”

News 3 Investigates spoke with a USCIS spokesperson earlier this week, who promised a response by Thursday evening to questions related to the backlogs in Wisconsin, but still had not responded at the time of publication.

Prior to the Trump administration, work permits had to be issued within 90 days — a rule that has not been reinstated under the Biden administration as backlogs mount, immigration attorneys told News 3 Investigates.

Today, USCIS says their processing times for Ukrainians arriving on parole (as the Romashchenko and Sokor families did) is 5.5 months.

Meanwhile, the families are left to wait, filling their time as best they can by caring for their school-aged children, volunteering, and investing in English and other education.

But they’d like to be able to pay their bills–on their own.

As Peter put it, “I want to be useful to this society.”

Join investigative reporter Naomi Kowles on this week’s For the Record on Sunday at 10:30 to hear more from Dane County officials on the work permit backlogs hampering refugee efforts to move forward.

Want to help the refugee resettlement effort in Stoughton? Learn more here, or stop by the Coffee4All Bistro Cafe from September 23-25 for a Ukrainian weekend filled with cultural dishes, music, art, and more. 10% of proceeds will benefit SRAP.

Lane Kimble contributed to this report.