About three dozen would-be asylum seekers from Russia found themselves blocked from entering the United States on Friday, while a group of Ukrainians flashed passports and were escorted across the border.
The scene reflected a quiet but unmistakable shift in the differing treatment of Russians and Ukrainians who enter Mexico as tourists and fly to Tijuana, hoping to enter the U.S. for a chance at asylum.
The Russians — 34 as of Friday — had been camped several days at the busiest U.S border crossing with Mexico, two days after city officials in Tijuana gently urged them to leave.
They sat on mats and blankets, checking smartphones, chatting and snacking, with sleeping bags and strollers nearby, as a stream of pedestrian border-crossers filed past them. Five young girls sat and talked in a circle, some with stuffed animals.
Days earlier, some Russians were being admitted to the U.S. at the San Ysidro crossing, while some Ukrainians were blocked. But by Friday, Russians were denied and Ukrainians were admitted after short waits.
“It’s very hard to understand how they make decisions,” said Iirina Zolinka, a 40-year-old Russian woman who camped overnight with her family of seven after arriving in Tijuana on Thursday.
Zolinka showed Reuters a BBC video of her arrest for attending an anti-war protest on Feb. 24, the day Russia invaded Ukraine in what the Kremlin calls a “special military operation” that Western allies have denounced.
She said she was released a few hours later and left Russia with her children the following week, passing through Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan, and Istanbul before reaching the Mexican beach resort of Cancun — a common jumping-off point for Russians heading to the U.S. border.
Erika Pinheiro, litigation and policy director for advocacy group Al Otro Lado, said the U.S. began admitting all Ukrainians on humanitarian parole for one year sometime around Tuesday, while at the same time blocking all Russians. There was no official announcement.
A Homeland Security Department memo dated March 11 but not publicly released until Thursday told border officials that Ukrainians may be exempt from sweeping asylum limits designed to prevent the spread of COVID-19. It says decisions are to be made on a case-by-case basis for Ukrainians, but it makes no mention of Russians.
“The Department of Homeland Security recognizes that the unjustified Russian war of aggression in Ukraine has created a humanitarian crisis,” the memo states.
Russian migrants in Tijuana sat off to the side of a line of hundreds of border residents waiting to walk across the border to San Diego on Friday. The line was unimpeded.
“It’s unfair that we can’t get in,” said Mark, 32, a restaurant manager who came from Moscow with his wife, flying to Mexico via Turkey and Germany in early March.
Both were arrested for three days last year after protesting in support of jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny, said Mark, who asked to withhold his last name. He said going back to Russia was not an option after new legislation that imposes up to 15 years in prison for actions found to discredit Russia’s army.
“This is our decision to be here and wait on the floor,” Mark said, seated on a blanket while watching hundreds of tourists and U.S. citizens enter San Diego. “If we leave this place, everyone will forget about this problem immediately.”
Mikhail Shliachkov, 35, seated on a cot under a parasol to take cover from the glaring sun, said he resolved to go to Mexico with his wife the day after the invasion, fearing he would be called up to fight close relatives in Ukraine.
“I don’t want to kill my brothers, you know?” he said, showing a photo of his birth certificate that states his mother was born in Ukraine.
Uptick in Russian, Ukrainian refugees
U.S. officials have expelled migrants more than 1.7 million times since March 2020, without a chance to see asylum under sweeping authority aimed at preventing the spread of COVID-19. But the public health authority, known as Title 42, is seldom used for migrants of some nationalities who are difficult to expel for financial or diplomatic reasons.
But to claim asylum, migrants must be on U.S. soil, and U.S. officials are blocking passage except for those it wants to admit.
Even before Russia’s invasion, the U.S. was seeing an increase in Russian and Ukrainian asylum-seekers, most trying to enter at official crossings in San Diego rather than trying to cross illegally in deserts and mountains.
More than 1,500 Ukrainians entered the U.S. at the Mexican border from September through February, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection, about 35 times the 45 Ukrainians who crossed during the same period a year earlier.
Ukrainians who can reach U.S. soil are virtually guaranteed a shot at asylum. Only four of the 1,553 who entered in the September-February period were barred under the public health order that lets the U.S. expel migrants without a chance at humanitarian protection.
The number of Russian asylum-seekers entering at U.S land crossings from Mexico surpassed 8,600 from September to February, about 30 times the 288 who crossed during the same time a year earlier. All but 23 were processed under laws that allow them to seek asylum.
Mexican officials have been wary of migrants sleeping at the border. Last month they dismantled a large migrant camp in Tijuana with tents and tarps that blocked a walkway to San Diego.
Eager to stop another camp from forming, the city distributed a letter on Wednesday asking migrants to leave their campsites for health and safety reasons and offering free shelter if they couldn’t afford a hotel.