From Ukraine to Mexico, the route of thousands of refugees that seek asylum in the US.


In less than a week, the number of Ukrainian refugees arriving in Tijuana, Mexico, to seek asylum in the United States more than doubled. The authorities of the neighboring country promised to speed up their asylum applications, while they wait in shelters on the other side of the border. President Joe Biden announced last March the reception of up to 100,000 people fleeing the war in Ukraine.

The effects of the war launched by Russia against Ukraine knock on the doors of the border between Mexico and the United States.

Hundreds of Ukrainian refugees arriving daily have a message for family and friends in Europe: The quickest route to settle on American soil is to book a flight to Mexico.

The Benito Juárez sports center in Tijuana, Mexico, which housed thousands of Haitians and people from Central America, has once again become an emergency shelter. This time for thousands of Ukrainians.

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Hundreds of Ukrainians, who fled to Mexico to later request asylum in the United States, in the midst of the war launched by Russia against their country, rest in the Benito Juárez sports complex, enabled as a refuge by the local government, in Tijuana, Mexico, on April 7, 2022. © Reuters/Jorge Duenes

Amid plastic mattresses, hundreds of people, including families with children, wait in the crowded place run by the local government. Others stay in hotels or churches, thanks to the help of religious and volunteers.

This week the number of Ukrainian refugees in the city increased to 2,829 more than double the 1,200 counted until last Friday, April 1, according to Enrique Lucero, director of Tijuana immigration services.

First mission: arrive in Mexico as tourists

Although US President Joe Biden announced last March that his country will receive up to 100,000 Ukrainian refugees, appointments at US consulates in Europe are few and the resettlement of refugees from European soil takes longer.

The journey is long and exhausting, but many prefer that destination to countries of the Old Continent where millions of Ukrainians have already settled.

“We feel very lucky, very blessed,” said Tatiana Bondarenko, a Ukrainian who traveled through Moldova, Romania, Austria, and Mexico before arriving in San Diego, California, on Tuesday, April 5, with her husband and children ages 8, 12. and 15 years.

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Ukrainians, who fled to Mexico amid the Russian war, wait to board a bus bound for the El Chaparral port of entry in Tijuana, Mexico, a city on the US border, on April 7, 2022. © Reuters/ Quetzalli Nicte-ha

His final destination was Sacramento, in the same state, to live with his mother, whom he had not seen in 15 years.

Migrants spend between $3,000 and $6,000 on trips to get to Tijuana, Lucero estimated.

Next mission: enter the United States

A network of volunteers, coming from the United States and made up mostly of churches in the west of the country, has been particularly effective in helping Ukrainians process their asylum applications.

At the Tijuana airport, travelers entering Mexico as tourists through Mexico City or Cancun are directed to a makeshift lounge in the air terminal with a sign that reads: “Only for Ukrainian refugees.” It is the only place to register for the process to enter the US.

Once there, alerted by text message or social media, the Ukrainians are summoned to a grassy hill and a bus stop near the border crossing hours before they are called by an assigned shift number to report to US officials. .

Angelina Mykyta, a university student from kyiv, admitted feeling nervous as her number approached. She fled to Warsaw after Moscow launched the war, but she decided to take a chance and head to the United States to receive help from a pastor she knows in Kalispell, Montana.

“I think we’ll be fine,” she said as she waited to be escorted from the camp of hundreds of Ukrainians to her final stop in Mexico, a small area with a few dozen folding chairs near US officials.

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A Ukrainian woman who fled her country after the war launched by Russia crosses into the United States, at the San Ysidro Land Port of Entry, between Tijuana, Mexico, and San Diego, California, USA, on April 1, 2022 © Reuters 
/ Jorge Duenes

The wait ends when Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officers accept the application. At times they come up and say, “We need a family.” “Give me three more.” “Singles, we need singles,” says a volunteer.

Across the border, a Ukrainian family poses for a photo under a U.S. Customs and Border Protection sign at the San Ysidro Port of Entry in San Diego.

Volunteers offer refreshments while expats wait to be picked up by families or buses to take them to a nearby church.

Between 200 and 300 Ukrainians entered the San Ysidro crossing in San Diego each day this week, while hundreds more continue to arrive first in Tijuana, according to volunteers who manage a waiting list to help them apply for asylum with US authorities.

Greater reception of Ukrainian refugees than Central Americans?

According to Enrique Lucero, director of Tijuana’s immigration services, the number of Ukrainians at the border has piled up as the US application process has not kept pace with the number of arrivals.

However, the role of groups of volunteers would be key so that at least they do not stay there waiting for months as has happened with thousands of Central Americans. The coalition of volunteers, quoted by the US agency AP, points out that many refugees wait two to four days to be brought before US officials who have admitted them on US soil under the figure of humanitarian parole.

That is legal permission to temporarily enter the United States granted under exceptional circumstances to someone who does not meet other requirements to enter legally.

“We realized we had a problem that the government wasn’t going to solve, so we solved it,” said Phil Metzger, pastor of Calvary Church in Chula Vista, a San Diego suburb, where about 75 members house Ukrainian families.

Also, US officials told the volunteers that their goal is to admit about 550 Ukrainians daily while the process moves to a nearby crossing that is temporarily closed to the public.

CBP did not provide numbers on requests resolved but said it has expanded facilities in San Diego to handle humanitarian cases.

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The Guatemalan Army and police clash with a group of migrants to prevent the passage of the caravan from Honduras in Vado Hondo, Guatemala, on January 17, 2021. © Luis Echeverría/ Reuters

Different would be the cases for those who have arrived in the so-called migrant caravans with people mostly from El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Haiti, and Venezuela.

In December 2021, Washington officially revived the Trump-era policy “remain in Mexico” or “remains in Mexico” with which asylum seekers are returned to that nation to wait there for a response to their requests and not on American soil.

Added to this situation is the fact that the migrant caravans make their journey by land, so on the way, they are detained by the armed forces of countries such as Guatemala and Mexico.

“Containing migrants is not enough (…) We cannot simply be detaining, we must address the causes. It is not advisable to base the immigration plan on containment, it is unstable,” Mexican President Andres Manuel López Obrador said last September, who seemed to rebel against the strategy of containing migrants. 

The arrival of Ukrainians at the border comes as the Biden Administration braces for a much larger number of immigrants, as pandemic-related asylum limits for all nationalities end on May 23.

From that moment, the so-called Title 42 will be repealed, a mechanism that has been used since 2020 to massively expel more than 1.7 million migrants to its border with Mexico.

Source: Reuters, AP

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