The number of Ukrainians escaping their war-torn country and arriving in the United States via Tijuana is growing fast. Early last week, the San Ysidro Port of Entry saw 20-30 people a day; now it’s in the hundreds.
And once at the border, the next step to their possible new lives begins with a simple, old-school tool — a yellow legal pad.
“Come this way,” volunteer Yan Mikhailov said in Ukrainian to a new group of arrivals, many of whom looked weary, even dazed.
“Put your names on a list.”
Approximately 4.3 million Ukrainians have fled their homes since Feb. 24, when Russia launched its invasion of their country. The majority have fled to Poland, but many also have crossed to Moldova, Hungary and other European countries. Some eventually want to wind up in the United States.
On March 24, President Biden said the U.S. would admit 100,000 Ukrainian refugees. While that helps define a potential legal path, it also means they must apply for entry while still outside of the country and can only enter after they’ve been accepted.
But there’s another way for war refugees to enter the U.S., through the asylum process. That allows people already in the United States the opportunity to seek what is known as “humanitarian parole,” which means they can stay temporarily if they fear persecution in their home countries on account of race, religion, nationality, political opinions or membership in a particular social group.
Ukrainians looking to enter the United States through Tijuana are seeking asylum.
On Friday, April 1, there were some 1,300 Ukrainians in Tijuana; 40 % of them children, said Enrique Lucero, Tijuana’s director of migrant affairs.
“All the flights from Cancun and Mexico City are full of Ukrainians,” Lucero said.
About 500 of those people are staying in hotels. The rest are waiting outside, near an open grassy area and covered bus stop close to the walkway that leads to the border gate. With the number of Ukrainian arrivals increasing rapidly, Tijuana officials are considering opening a sports arena to offer them a temporary location, he said.
Since the beginning of the war, Tijuana has seen some 2,000 Ukrainians cross to the United States, according to Lucero, who added that during this period Mexico has not required tourist visas from Ukrainians. Many of those Ukrainians were already in Mexico when the war began. Since January, some 10,000 Ukrainians were in the country, mostly in Cancun, traveling on tourist visas, he said.
As Ukrainians arrive at the Tijuana International Airport, volunteers are on hand to pick them up and drive them to the port of entry, where a makeshift encampment is developing. On Friday, volunteers counted at least 700 Ukrainians at the site.
But in what could otherwise be a chaotic scene, volunteers — many of whom are refugees themselves — have created an orderly process to get the Ukrainians through Border Patrol and into the United States. Volunteers simply jot down names of people as they arrive, and assign them a number, which then becomes the basis for who is next in line to cross the border. (The wait was averaging 20 hours earlier this week but was closer to 30 hours by Friday.)
It’s unclear who exactly started “the list” but, for now, it plays a pivotal role in how Ukranians are getting processed to the next chapter of their lives.
“The list has been very honest,” said Inna Levien, a Mission Viejo resident who has volunteered long days at the border, bringing food, playing with young kids and helping to organize and translate.
“I’m surprised how organized it is.”
Not that there haven’t been bumps in the road. At one point, the original list was left unattended and it disappeared. Last Wednesday, Levien said, volunteers started a new list, adding that they are more mindful about its whereabouts.
On Wednesday, Mikhailov, a 36-year-old architect who owns a construction company in Kyiv and who left Ukraine more than a month ago with his parents, twin brother, sisters and their children, was among the helpers. He answered questions and directed newcomers to a covered Mexican bus stop that local police and volunteers have converted into a temporary processing center of sorts.
There, people like Dina Kobys, also wearing a volunteer vest, took turns writing down the names of every arrival over the age of 16. They also added a straight line on the yellow pad to connect those who are in the same family and who will need to travel together.
“How long will we need to wait?” one woman asks her.
“I don’t know,” Kobys said, as her friend, Inna Hurzhyi, translated for a reporter. “When it’s your time, they’ll call a group of 20 and you can go to the border together. People who signed yesterday are now on their way to the border.”
Hurzhyi, a 28-year-old English teacher from Ukraine who was in Russian-controlled Crimea with her husband when the war broke out, explained her situation in simple terms.
“I love my country and I didn’t want to go.”
By Thursday night, she and her husband and their friends were heading to Sacramento, where her cousins live. They’d spent 28 hours at the border.
Some of the refugees said they had heard it would be easier to cross into the United States from Tijuana, rather than to wait for a tourist visa to enter the United States and then seek asylum.
“They told us ‘If you come here to Tijuana, you can stand in this line and they will help you,’” said Sergey, who asked that his last name not be mentioned. The Odessa resident arrived with his wife, Anna, and their four children, ages 6 to 15.
Like other dads with at least three children under the age of 16, he was excused from mandatory military service during the war. The family left home on Feb. 26, two days after the first shelling, and headed to neighboring Moldova, where he volunteered for about a month, transporting other refugees from one border to the next. Before arriving in Tijuana, the family had traveled from Moldova through several places, including Romania, Amsterdam and Cancun.
The decision to leave wasn’t easy.
“The hardest part was when we had to make a decision to leave everything behind and move toward the unknown,” said Sergey, who worked as a Christian camp organizer and speaks English. His family is heading to Florida.
While sharing his story, his smiling 8-year-old daughter Margo played “rock-paper-scissors” with him. She then showed off a bracelet that she’d picked up in trade, for a purse, with another refugee girl.
Like other children in the improvised waiting area, Margo played and laughed a lot. At one point, she danced while her older brother played a ukulele. Back home, the teenager said, he played the piano. While waiting, he jokingly put out a hat while performing and people plopped some dollar bills, to the amusement of Sergey and Anna.
Each member of the family had arrived at this border with a duffel bag, Sergey said. Some have a change of clothes; some don’t.
Holding a donated apple, his wife, Anna, commended the volunteers.
“It’s a good team here.”
There’s no one team at the border. There are many. But they appear to be working together as they coordinate with local police and other government officials.
They include individuals like Levien and Anastesiya Polo, a Trabuco Canyon resident. Both women, members of an Orange County group of Russian-speaking moms, have spent long stretches — sometimes as the lone nighttime volunteer — at the growing encampment, where by Thursday volunteers had put up tents and canopies to offer protection from inclement weather.
“There’s a real interest in doing more than just discussing and praying,” said Levien Thursday night, shortly after she helped put children to sleep on donated yoga mats and blankets in the outdoor site.
Other volunteers include members and leaders from churches in Tijuana, San Diego and Sacramento. They’re helping to provide transportation, food and other necessities.
“Our task here is to keep people organized, warm, give them food and water,” said Arthur Popov, pastor of the Light to the World Church in Sacramento.
While some volunteers passed out food, Popov spent part of Wednesday at the spot the Ukrainians longed to get to: the point before they were called into the line to meet with U.S. Customs and Border Patrol officers.
“Families cannot be divided,” Popov said. “The U.S. officers are giving them a one-year parole, with a work authorization.”
The Ukranians have recently been given an exemption to what’s known as Title 42, enacted under the Trump administration, to prevent asylum applicants from entering the country during the pandemic.
On Friday, the Centers for Disease Control announced an end to Title 42 restrictions beginning May 23.
Immigrant rights-advocates have pushed the Biden administration to end the sweeping pandemic-related border restrictions that, before the war in Ukraine, have prevented most asylum seekers from entering.
There’s a double standard, they said, that allows Ukrainians to pass while others are turned away.
“It was a relief to hear that the administration is finally committing to ending this policy,” said Julia Neusner, an attorney with the non-profit Human Rights First who is in Tijuana documenting happenings at the border.
“It’s caused a lot of harm and it violates U.S. refugee protection laws.”
Once the border becomes more open again to accepting applications for asylum – a long process that only begins at the border and could take years for approval – it could mean a surge in migration at the border.
Meanwhile, as the number of Ukrainians looking to cross in the U.S. through Tijuana continues to swell, the situation draws volunteers like Phil Metzger. In addition to his role as pastor of Calvary San Diego Church in Chula Vista, Metzger oversees Calvary churches in Ukraine.
“We’ve been somehow an unofficial hub, working with probably 25 different groups, offering translation, driving people to the airport, connecting them with temporary housing,” Metzger said.
As Ukrainians cross over to the other side, one of the first things they see is the Ukrainian flag.
That’s where more volunteers greet them. There’s a snack, a smile and a ride to their next destination.
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