A Wave of Ukrainians and Russians at the U.S.-Mexico Border Puts Pressure on Biden’s Immigration Restrictions

Sofiia (a Ukrainian mother) and her three kids were finally permitted to cross the U.S.-Mexico border at Tijuana in the early hours of March 11. Their third attempt at asylum was granted.

Sophiia’s children were denied entry by the border agents. They cited Title 42 as a controversial and obscure public health rule which allows U.S officials to bypass all normal procedures, such as asylum interviews. LEventually, they were helped by the Center for Gender and Refugee Studies of UC Hastings.
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Migrant advocates say Sofiia and her family’s struggle has directed a spotlight on the Biden Administration’s embrace of Title 42, which has been the subject of an ongoing lawsuit against the U.S., at a time when a growing number of Ukrainians and Russians are attempting to request asylum.

A TIME analysis concluded that Information about CBPBetween FY2020-2021, there were 753% more encounters between U.S. border officers and Ukrainians or Russians at Mexico’s border. In FY22 so far, the number of Ukrainians and Russians encountered at the border has already surpassed the previous two years, with the most significant uptick happening in the last six months, as Russia’s threats against Ukraine increased. CPB does not have data available for either February or March so it is difficult to track more accurately the impact of Russian invasion.

U.S. Borders witness a surge in Russians and Ukrainians

Sophiia, her children and their family have had a difficult two weeks. Sofiia, along with her three children, fled Ukraine on February 27, the day after Russia attacked Ukraine militarily. They drove to Moldova, Romania and then flew directly to Mexico City. Immigration experts say it’s likely she chose this pathway because most Ukrainian passport holders don’t need a visa to arrive in Mexico by plane; a visa is required to arrive in the U.S. From Mexico City, Sofiia and her kids drove to Tijuana, hoping to cross into the U.S. to stay with family members in California while they awaited their asylum hearing. A desperate family that had twice been turned down was now being waited for by Crowd of journalistsWhen they arrived on American soil.

Since Feb. 24, when Russia began its invasion, the UN’s refugee agency (UNHCR) estimates that 2.5 million people have fled Ukraine into neighboring countries. “UNHCR considers all people fleeing Ukraine as refugees who should be granted safety,” Kevin Keen, a communications officer at UNHCR, tells TIME in a statement. “We call on all countries to allow civilians of all nationalities fleeing Ukraine non-discriminatory access to their territories and to ensure respect for the principle of non-refoulement.” UNHCR currently does not contain dataFind out how many fleeing Ukraine arrived in Mexico.

There has been an increase in the number of Ukrainian and Russian migrants crossing the U.S.–Mexico border ever since the outbreak of war. The San Diego Rapid Response Network’s Migrant Shelter Services, which operates a shelter for people who have just crossed the U.S.-Mexico border, says that during the week of Feb. 21-27, it aided 259 people, most of whom were Cubans, Russians, and Ukrainians.

TIME has also heard from Taylor Levy (an immigration attorney who assists other lawyers in Title 42), that she received dozens of phone calls over the past two weeks asking whether their Ukrainian or Russian clients could legally cross the border to America. “I’ve definitely mentored other attorneys on Ukrainian and Russian cases for months now,” Levy says. “But it’s been particularly busy in the…days since the war started.”

An American couple fled Ukraine on Thursday and tried to reach the U.S. via Tijuana. The man claimed that their Ukrainian spouse had been taken into custody by Border Patrol agents.

Learn moreSome suggest that the U.S. ought to offer sanctuary for Russian defectors. This could even work.

Since at least 2014, Russians and Ukrainians have been crossing the border to the U.S. from Mexico, Jessica Bolter of the Migration Policy institute (MPI), an associate policy analyst. Although the figures are still relatively small compared with other nationalities such as Salvadorans and Guatemalans, they have always been significant. CBP informs TIME that the Ukrainians as well as Russians comprised about 1% each of CBP encounters between FY2019 to now. U.S. border officers reported that there were more than 4500 interactions with Russians or Ukrainians in December at U.S.-Canada borders. This compares to more than 3700 encounters in January.

Numerous European countries have offered refuge to the fleeing Ukrainians, even those in neighboring Ukraine. Canada announced on March 10, that it will accept unlimited numbers of Ukrainians into its country. Sofiia stated that her family tried to travel to the U.S. as her relatives and support are available.

The spotlight on Title 42

Title 42 was first invoked by the Trump Administration in March 2020 when COVID-19 began to spread in the U.S. The Biden Administration, however, has expelled many more people that the Trump Administration.

On March 4, a district court ruled that the Biden Administration could continue expelling families under Title 42, but couldn’t expel them to countries where they feared persecution. The government, however, has 52 days since the ruling to decide its next step—it could decide to abide by the court ruling, appeal, or do away with Title 42 altogether.

Sofiia and her relatives were initially refused entry under Title 42. However, this is an exception to the rule, according to immigration experts. Bolter states that most Russian and Ukrainian migrants were exempted under Title 42. This is likely due to the fact that the U.S. doesn’t have the financial resources to send them back to their home countries.

Mexico has accepted its nationals along with Hondurans Salvadorans, Guatemalans and Guatemalans. Other nationalities like Haitians and Nicaraguans have been returned to home countries. Russians and Ukrainians are frequently exempt from Title 42, along with people from India and China. Some other nationalities also get exemptions at higher rates than the others. “It’s likely that there is not sufficient coordination between the U.S. government and those other governments to make expulsions worthwhile,” Bolter says.

Learn moreAdvocates state that Protecting Ukrainians from Deportation is a Step in the Right Direction for Other Immigration Reforms

After the Russian annexe of Crimea in 2014, 1.5 million Ukrainians have been internally displaced. Bolter suggests that the Ukrainians that have arrived at U.S.-Mexico’s border in recent years may be those who had been displaced by this conflict.

It is possible that the increased number of Russians trying to enter the U.S. by land may also be due to the annexed. People who have been politically persecuted because of their criticism of the Putin regime, or those fleeing other types of persecution—because of their religion or sexual orientation, for example—may not see safe havens in neighboring Eastern European countries, several of which have seen the rise of anti-migrant and rightwing political parties.

Europe can also be perceived as being more geographically close, making it feel even more unsafe. “There certainly have been instances of the Russian government following dissidents through Europe and still being able to get to them through Europe,” Bolter says. “They might feel safer coming to coming to Mexico and the U.S.” The European Court of Human Rights ruled in September that Alexander Litvinenko (an ex-Russian official) was poisoned by the Kremlin.

Learn moreLGBTQ Refugees Seek Safety After fleeing Ukraine

Levy warns that there are extreme dangers when trying to migrate to the U.S. through Mexico. Organizational crime is often a target for migrants, even those from Eastern Europe, who travel through Mexico. Levy knows several Eastern Europeans who were forced to pay extortionists by Mexican authorities. While migrants who come from Europe tend to have more resources, and therefore may succeed in Driving through a port of entry—driving Increases their odds of touching U.S. soil and making an asylum claim—Levy warns against the attempt. Two vehicles carrying 18 Russians and children were attacked by border agents in December after they tried to accelerate past San Diego’s port of entry. CBP says that while no one was hit by bullets, two persons sustained mild head injuries.

“I think most Central Americans know these dangers exist, I think the Russians and Ukrainians do as well,” Levy says. “I think a lot of people know that these dangers exist, but they’re in incredibly desperate situations.”


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