A technicality is preventing a young Ukrainian man from pursuing his education in Kentucky, so he plans to return to his strife-ridden home country.
Vlad Vitel had hoped to enroll in a construction management program at Eastern Kentucky University. But by following incorrect advice from EKU’s International Student and Scholar Services office, his visitor visa expired while he awaited approval of a student visa.
Then, in January, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service informed him that he must return to Ukraine.
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“I’m really in an uncomfortable situation right now,” Vitel, 20, said during an interview in rural Madison County.
Vitel came to the United States last year with his family. His parents live in Florida, while Vitel and his brother, Yehor, 18, stay with a family in Richmond.
Vitel was studying at Kiev’s National Academy of Fine Arts and Architecture before leaving Ukraine because of that country’s conflict with Russia.
He had hoped to continue his studies at EKU, which issued him a “certificate of eligibility for nonimmigrant status” for classes starting Aug. 18.
But that date came after the expiration of his visitor visa. As a result, Vitel was not covered by any visa for 22 days.
“He could have extended his visitor’s visa for six months, but he didn’t do it because he thought his application covered that period,” said Robert Barry Tait, a Madison County man whose family has befriended Vitel and his brother.
“So basically I had 22 days … where I was uncovered by any visa,” Vitel said. “And this is the reason why the USCIS denied my request for changing of status.”
Had he received proper guidance, Vitel would have been advised to apply concurrently for extension of his visitor status as well as the petition for change of status for a student visa, wrote Wenceslaus P’Oryem, director of the EKU International Student and Scholar Services office, in a Jan. 31 letter to USCIS.
P’Oryem’s letter asked USCIS to reconsider its decision “as Mr. Vitel was not aware he was in violation of U.S. immigration law.”
P’Oryem said in a brief telephone interview that he could not discuss the matter without Vitel’s permission, and even then he would be limited in what he could say. Ted Farrell, a Louisville immigration lawyer who had consulted with Vitel, also declined to discuss the Ukrainian’s situation.
But Kirby Fullerton, a Lexington lawyer who handles immigration cases and who was briefed by a reporter about Vitel’s dilemma, said the Ukrainian’s case “illustrates the unnecessary complexity of immigration law.”
“In order to navigate anything with immigration, you need an attorney, which a lot of people don’t use until something happens, and then they call me,” Fullerton said. “It’s complex even for me, an attorney.”
Although he hasn’t handled such cases, Fullerton said Vitel’s situation “happens pretty often.”
“Generally, changing your status from visitor to student is always an uphill battle because the government is going to assume you always had the intention of changing your status,” Fullerton said. “You have to show that you didn’t have that intention (of becoming a student) when you came in.”
Vitel had considered going to Canada and obtaining a new visa from a U.S. consulate there. But that route was risky because the consulate might say that he is not eligible for such “third-country processing,” and he would have to return to Ukraine.
Ukraine has had volatile relations with Russia, its traditional trading partner and chief investor.
In 2014, Kiev, Ukraine’s capital, had weeks of demonstrations that led to the expulsion of its president and the installation of a new government. In response to the upheaval, Russia occupied Crimea, the peninsula that juts from southern Ukraine into the Black Sea.
Tensions with Russia are still high. Mobs recently attacked the Russian embassy in Kiev and consulates in Odessa and Lvov. Meanwhile, Ukraine’s currency has lost value, inflation has skyrocketed, and the country’s living standards have fallen.
“My parents really don’t want me to go back to Ukraine, partly because if you’re studying, the military can’t draft you,” Vitel said. “But since I left my university, as soon as I come back to the Ukraine, I may be drafted. It’s basically dangerous for me to go back.”
But Vitel said he sees no option now but to return to Ukraine, and he has plans to fly out of Cincinnati in late April. He hopes to return to the United States at a later date. He said he doesn’t want to be a burden to friends at First United Methodist Church in Richmond and others who have supported him and his brother up to this point.
“I don’t want to go back to Ukraine,” he said. “I made a lot of friends here, and I’m attached to a lot of people here. It hurts.”