Ukrainians Cross California Border, Even As Pandemic Policy Keeps Other Asylum-Seekers Out

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Two women stand together in a building. The woman on the right has a black face mask and a white jacket. The woman on the left has a white face mask and dark-colored shirt.
Maryna (right) stands alongside Ilona Sokolinsky, a staff member at Jewish Family Service of San Diego, who acted as her interpreter for an interview with KQED. (Max Rivlin-Nadler)

It’s well after midnight at a border crossing in Tijuana, Mexico, on a recent Saturday night. A group of migrants are huddled under blankets near the San Ysidro port of entry. They say they’re from Russia and Belarus, and they’ve come here to ask for asylum in the United States. But the door to the U.S., just feet away from where they’re camped out, is still closed to them.

That’s because of Title 42, a public health code intended to prevent the spread of disease that’s being used to block the entry of migrants without visas. The policy was imposed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, under pressure from the Trump White House, at the start of the pandemic two years ago. And while COVID-19 restrictions have been lifted in much of the U.S., Title 42 is still in place. But it's subject to review by the end of this month.

Also, two weeks ago, the Department of Homeland Security issued an extraordinary exception for Ukrainians, saying they — and only they — could be exempted from Title 42. That means something resembling the normal asylum process is restored for them.

Title 42 has been used to expel people more than 1.7 million times, without allowing them the opportunity to request asylum. Eastern Europeans — the same as Central Americans, Haitians and other asylum-seekers who have arrived in the thousands at the U.S.-Mexico border — are now increasingly desperate to cross. And some are trying dangerous methods to get into the United States.

Cars are seen in front of barricades with razor wire.
Cars line up at the automobile crossing at the San Ysidro port of entry, where Customs and Border Protection recently added cement blocks and concertina wire, on Thursday, March 10, 2022. (Max Rivlin-Nadler)

“Legal ways that would normally be afforded to people seeking protection are not available,” said Kate Clark, an attorney with Jewish Family Service of San Diego. Her organization provides shelter and assistance to every asylum-seeker that passes through San Diego County.

Since January, more than 1,000 Russians and over 450 Ukrainians have crossed the San Diego-Tijuana border, according to Jewish Family Service.

“Many times [migrants] will try to seek asylum at the port, and they’re denied, and so they're forced to grapple with going between ports,” Clark said, “whether it be through the high desert or through another way that, quite frankly, risks their lives.”

For Ukrainians and other Eastern Europeans, the challenge has just been to get onto U.S. soil. As part of an agreement with the United States, Mexico won’t accept Eastern European asylum-seekers if the U.S. doesn’t want to admit them under Title 42. Mexicans and Central Americans, by contrast, have been promptly expelled back to Mexico, though the Biden administration has made exceptions for unaccompanied children and many families.

One strategy used by Russians and, until recently, Ukrainians, is to buy or rent a car in Tijuana, and drive past an initial checkpoint at the port of entry before asking for protection. In September, one Ukrainian asylum-seeker even went so far as to ram his car into the car in front of him to make sure he was firmly in the U.S.

“Really, it was a miracle that we were able to get past the [American] border officials. They didn’t ask for my documents,” said Maryna, a Ukrainian asylum-seeker who made it to the U.S. before the exception from DHS. She left Vyshneve, a small city near Kyiv, in early March as Russian bombs began to fall. (KQED is using only her first name because of safety concerns for her parents and husband, who are still in Ukraine.)

Maryna and her two young daughters fled to Germany, then flew to Mexico City. After a final flight to Tijuana, a family friend crossed over from San Diego and drove them back to California through the port of entry.

“They just saw that a U.S. citizen was behind the wheel, and they let us through,” she told me through an interpreter.

A man and woman are standing close together with other people around them next to a metal gate.
An unidentified Ukrainian couple waits at the pedestrian crossing at the San Ysidro port of entry, as Eastern Europeans try to find safety in the United States, on Thursday, March 10, 2022. (Max Rivlin-Nadler)

Once at the passport control booth on U.S. soil, Maryna told Customs and Border Protection officers they were seeking asylum.

She’s relieved that she and her daughters reached the U.S., but as she looks out at the beautiful spring weather in San Diego, she says her mind is constantly elsewhere.

“At night, I couldn’t sleep because of the emotions, because [my family] is far away and we’re already here,” she said. “Yes, everything is pretty, everything is great here, but I can’t enjoy it or relax.”

The preferential treatment Ukrainians are now receiving has left migrants from other countries — many of whom have been waiting months, if not years — baffled and frustrated.

One woman turned back under Title 42 is Jackie, 21, from Michoacán, Mexico. She said she came to Tijuana a year ago, fleeing cartel violence, and lives in a crowded shelter, with no timetable on when she can enter the United States. We’re only using her first name because she fears for her safety.

During her wait in Tijuana, she has slept in a dangerous encampment near the border, and has had to relocate multiple times after being confronted by Mexican police. She told me last November that when she tried to cross the border into the United States, Border Patrol agents were insulting and dismissive.

“They were very racist to me,” Jackie said. “They treated my family like insects.”

Erika Pinheiro, an attorney with Al Otro Lado, a legal aid group that assists asylum-seekers in Tijuana, said she has seen Eastern Europeans receive much better treatment than other migrants.

“What I’ve personally observed is that CBP tends to be more polite or tell them to wait,” she said. “But when we see Central American or Black migrants approach the port of entry, they’re told to leave, they’re screamed at.”

Earlier this month, several U.S. senators, including majority leader Chuck Shumer and California’s Alex Padilla, called on the Biden administration to end Title 42. The CDC must reassess the policy every 60 days, and the current review period ends March 30.