TIJUANA, Mexico — Hundreds of Ukrainian refugees arriving every day have a message for family and friends in Europe: The fastest way to settle in the United States is to book a flight to Mexico.
A loose coalition of volunteers, largely from Slavic churches in the western United States, daily guides hundreds of refugees from the airport in the Mexican border city of Tijuana to hotels, churches and shelters, where they wait two to four days for US authorities to grant them parole on humanitarian grounds. In less than two weeks, volunteers worked with US and Mexican officials to build a remarkably efficient and expanding network to provide food, security, transportation and shelter.
The volunteers, who wear blue and yellow badges to represent the Ukrainian flag but have no group name or leader, started a waiting list on notepads and later switched to a mobile app normally used to track church attendance. Ukrainians are told to report to a U.S. border crossing as their numbers approach, a system organizers liken to waiting for a restaurant table.
“We feel so lucky, so blessed,” said Tatiana Bondarenko, who traveled through Moldova, Romania, Austria and Mexico before arriving in San Diego on Tuesday with her husband and children, aged 8, 12 and 15 years old. Her final destination was Sacramento, California, to live with her mother, whom she had not seen in 15 years.
Another Ukrainian family posed nearby for photos under a U.S. Customs and Border Protection sign at the San Ysidro Port of Entry in San Diego, the busiest crossing point between the United States and Mexico . Volunteers under a blue awning offered snacks as the refugees waited for family to pick them up or for buses to take them to a nearby church.
At Tijuana airport, weary travelers entering Mexico as tourists in Mexico City or Cancun are directed to a makeshift lounge in the terminal with a black felt-tipped sign that reads “Ukrainian Refugees Only.” This is the only place to register to enter the United States
About 200 to 300 Ukrainians have been admitted daily at the San Ysidro crossing this week, and hundreds more have arrived in Tijuana, according to volunteers who manage the waiting list. There were 973 families or single adults waiting on Tuesday.
US officials told volunteers they aim to admit about 550 Ukrainians a day as processing moves to a nearby crossing that is temporarily closed to the public. CBP did not provide numbers in response to questions about operations and plans, saying only that it had expanded its facilities in San Diego to handle humanitarian cases.
“We realized we had a problem the government wasn’t going to solve, so we solved it,” said Phil Metzger, pastor of Calvary Church in the San Diego suburb of Chula Vista, where about 75 members welcome Ukrainian families and 100 others. the refugees sleep on air mattresses and benches.
Metzger, whose pastoral work has taken him to Ukraine and Hungary, calls the operation “duct tape and glue” but refugees prefer it to overstretched European countries, where millions of Ukrainians have settled.
The Biden administration has said it will accept up to 100,000 Ukrainians, but Mexico is the only route producing large numbers. Appointments at US consulates in Europe are infrequent and refugee resettlement takes time.
The administration set a refugee resettlement cap of 125,000 in the 12-month period ending September 30, but accepted only 8,758 as of March 31, including 704 Ukrainians. The previous year, it had capped the resettlement of refugees at 62,500 but only taken in 11,411, including 803 Ukrainians.
The administration paroled more than 76,000 Afghans through US airports in response to the departure of US troops last year, but nothing similar is brewing for the Ukrainians.
Oksana Dugnyk, 36, was hesitant to leave her home in Bucha but acquiesced to her husband’s wishes before Russian troops invaded the town and left streets strewn with corpses behind. The couple were worried about violence in Mexico with three young children, but the strong presence of volunteers in Tijuana reassured them and a friend in Ohio agreed to host them.
“So far so good,” Dugnyk said a day after arriving at a Tijuana gymnasium that the city government opened for about 400 Ukrainians to sleep on a basketball court. “We have food. We have accommodation. We hope everything will be fine. »
Alerted by text or social media, Ukrainians are summoned to a grassy hill and bus shelter near the border post hours before their numbers are called. The city government opened the bus shelter to protect Ukrainians from torrential rains.
Angelina Mykyta, a student in kyiv, admitted her nervousness when approaching her number. She fled to Warsaw after the invasion but decided to try her luck in the United States because she wanted to settle down with a pastor she knows in Kalispell, Montana.
“I think everything will be fine,” she said as she waited to be escorted from the camp of hundreds of Ukrainians to their final stop in Mexico – a small area with a few dozen folding chairs within earshot. American officials. Some refuse to drink at the last stop, fearing they will have to go to the bathroom and miss their turn.
The lulls end when CBP officers approach: “We need a family.” “Give me three more.” “Singles, we need singles.” A volunteer ensures the smooth running of the trips.
The arrival of Ukrainians comes as the Biden administration braces for much larger numbers when pandemic-related asylum limits for all nationalities end on May 23. Since March 2020, the United States has used the authority of Title 42, named after a 1944 public health law, to suspend rights to seek asylum under U.S. law and international treaties.
Metzger, the Chula Vista pastor, said his church could not continue its round-the-clock pace of helping refugees for long, and suspects US authorities won’t embrace what the volunteers have done.
“If you make something go well, then everyone is going to come,” he said. “We make it easy. Eventually, I’m sure they’ll say, ‘No, we’re done.’
New York Post