A surge of Ukrainians and Russians at the US-Mexico border puts pressure on Biden’s immigration restrictions

A Ukrainian woman, Sofia, and her three children were finally allowed to cross the US-Mexico border near Tijuana on the morning of March 11. It was their third attempt to seek asylum in the United States.

The border agents who had denied Sophia and her children had cited Title 42, an arcane and controversial public health rule that allows US officials to circumvent the normal pitfalls of the immigration process, including asylum interviews. ILawyers from the Center for Gender and Refugee Studies at UC Hastings eventually helped pave the way.
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Migrant advocates say the struggle of Sofia and her family has shone a spotlight on the Biden administration’s adoption of Title 42, which is the subject of an ongoing lawsuit against the United States, at a when increasing numbers of Ukrainians and Russians are trying to seek asylum. .

According to a TIME analysis of CBP Data, the number of encounters between U.S. border agents and Ukrainians and Russians at the U.S.-Mexico border has increased 753% between fiscal 2020 and 2021. So far in fiscal 22, the number of ‘Ukrainians and Russians encountered at the border has already exceeded the previous two years, with the largest increase occurring in the past six months as Russia’s threats to Ukraine increased. The CPB has yet to provide data for February or early March, making it difficult to more accurately track the influence of the Russian invasion.

A wave of Russians and Ukrainians at the American borders

These two weeks have been difficult for Sophia and her family. Around February 27, days after Russia launched its military invasion of Ukraine, Sofia and her children fled their home, traveled to Moldova, then Romania, then flew to Mexico City. Immigration experts say it’s likely she chose this route because most Ukrainian passport holders don’t need a visa to fly into Mexico; a visa is required to arrive in the United States From Mexico City, Sofia and her children traveled to Tijuana, hoping to cross the United States to stay with family members in California while awaiting their asylum hearing . The desperate family, who had twice been turned down, were expected by crowd of journalists when they crossed American soil.

Since February 24, when Russia began its invasion, the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) estimates that 2.5 million people have fled Ukraine to neighboring countries. “UNHCR views all people fleeing Ukraine as refugees who should be protected,” UNHCR communications officer Kevin Keen told 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 has no data how many people fleeing Ukraine landed in Mexico.

Anecdotal evidence points to an increase in Ukrainian and Russian migrants at the US-Mexico border since the start of the war. The San Diego Rapid Response Network’s Migrant Shelter Services, which runs a shelter for people who have just crossed the US-Mexico border, says that during the week of Feb. 21-27, it helped 259 people, including the most were Cubans, Russians, and Ukrainians.

Immigration attorney Taylor Levy, who helps other attorneys navigate Title 42, also told TIME that over the past two weeks she’s fielded dozens of calls from colleagues asking if their Ukrainian and Russian customers could travel to the United States via the Mexican. border, or what to do if their client is already in Mexico. “I’ve certainly mentored other lawyers on Ukrainian and Russian cases for months now,” Levy says. “But he’s been particularly busy these…days since the war started.”

An American on Thursday told ABC affiliate 10 News San Diego that he and his wife had fled Ukraine, attempting to enter the United States through Tijuana; he said his Ukrainian wife was detained by border officials.

Read more: Some argue that the United States should offer sanctuary to defecting Russian troops. Could this even work?

Ukrainians and Russians have been arriving at the US-Mexico border since at least 2014, says Jessica Bolter, a policy analyst associated with the Migration Policy Institute (MPI), a nonpartisan research institution, though the numbers have always been relatively low compared to others. nationalities, such as Salvadorans, Guatemalans and Hondurans. Between fiscal year 2019 and today, Ukrainians and Russians each average about 1% of encounters with CBP, CBP tells TIME in a statement. In December, US border agents reported more than 4,500 encounters with Russians and Ukrainians at the borders with the United States and Canada in December, and more than 3,700 in January.

Many European countries, including those neighboring Ukraine, have opened their doors to fleeing Ukrainians. Canada also announced on March 10 that it would accept an unlimited number of Ukrainians into the country. Sofia told reporters that she and her family tried to enter the United States because her family members and the support they could provide were there.

Title 42 in the spotlight

The Trump administration first invoked Title 42 in March 2020 as COVID-19 infections began to spread across the United States. But the Biden administration has used the order to deport far more people than the Trump administration.

On March 4, a district court ruled that the Biden administration could continue to deport families under Title 42, but could not deport them to countries where they feared persecution. The government, however, has 52 days from the decision to decide what to do next – it could decide to abide by the court’s ruling, appeal, or scrap Title 42 altogether.

While Sofia and her family were initially denied entry under Title 42, they are an exception, immigration experts say. For the most part, Russian and Ukrainian migrants have been exempted from Title 42, likely because the United States does not have the resources to return Russians or Ukrainians to those countries, Bolter says.

While Mexico has agreed to accept its own nationals, as well as Hondurans, Salvadorans and Guatemalans, other nationalities, including Haitians and Nicaraguans, are generally sent back to their home countries. Russians and Ukrainians, as well as people from India and China and a few other nationalities are often exempt from Title 42 at much higher rates than others. “There probably isn’t enough coordination between the US government and these other governments to make deportations worth it,” Bolter says.

Read more: Protecting Ukrainians from deportation sets the stage for other immigration reforms, advocates say

Since 2014, the population of Ukrainians internally displaced due to the conflict with Russia has exceeded 1.5 million following Russia’s annexation of Crimea. Ukrainians who have arrived at the US-Mexico border since then may be displaced by that earlier conflict, Bolter says.

The increase in the number of Russians attempting to cross overland to the United States may also be linked to the annexation. People who have been politically persecuted because of their criticism of Putin’s regime, or those fleeing other kinds of persecution, because of their religion or sexual orientation, for example, may not find refuge in neighboring countries in Eastern Europe, several of which have seen the rise of anti-migrant and right-wing political parties.

Europe is also simply geographically closer, which may seem more dangerous. “There have certainly been instances where the Russian government has tracked dissidents across Europe and has always been able to reach them through Europe,” Bolter said. “They might feel safer coming to Mexico and the United States” In September, the European Court of Human Rights found that the Kremlin was responsible for the death of former Russian official Alexander Litvinenko, who was poisoned in 2006.

Read more: After fleeing Ukraine, LGBTQ refugees seek safety in countries hostile to their rights

But attempting to immigrate to the United States through Mexico also carries extreme risks, warns Levy. Migrants, including Eastern Europeans, transiting through Mexico are often the target of organized crime. Levy also knew Eastern Europeans who were extorted by Mexican officials. While migrants who come from Europe tend to have more resources, and can therefore manage to cross an entry point by car…conduct increases their chances of landing on American soil and claiming asylum – Levy warns against this attempt. In December, two vehicles carrying 18 Russians, including children, were shot by a border agent after the drivers tried to overtake the San Diego port of entry. Although none were hit by bullets, two people suffered minor head injuries, according to CBP.

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


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