Tens of thousands cross the San Ysidro port-of-entry daily. It’s the main crossing between Tijuana and San Diego, CA. It’s also one of the busiest entryways on the southern border for those refugees seeking safety, stability, and a better life in the United States.
When many think of the southern border, they imagine caravans traveling from Central America, or, last year, those fleeing political and economic instability in Haiti. But, San Ysidro is used by people from dozens of countries — including Russia and Ukraine.
Since Vladimir Putin waged war on Ukraine, thousands have fled the region, coming to the U.S. in search of asylum. Some are traveling through Europe, others the Middle East, equipped with tourist visas and stops in Cancun and Mexico City. Their ultimate destination: Tijuana, MX.
It’s been reported that at least three dozen Russian nationals have been stopped at the San Ysidro border in recent weeks, unfairly denied access while Ukrainians have crossed with ease, leaving many, like Irina Zolinka, asking why. She and her family have been stranded in Tijuana for nearly a week.
“It’s very hard to understand how they make decisions,” Zolinka says.
For many Russians however, the process and journey began long before Putin’s war.
Following Alexei Navalny’s arrest in January 2021, Russians began leaving in droves. Those who supported Navalny were targeted. Members of certain religious communities — like Jehovah’s Witnesses — were persecuted. The LGBTQ community became increasingly unsafe.
After Biden’s inauguration, POTUS called Putin a “killer,” imposed sanctions on Russia for its cyberwarfare and its interference in the 2020 election, for cyberbullying Ukraine. Russia, in retaliation, deemed the United States an unfriendly state. The U.S. Embassy in Russia had to reduce its staff by 75%, making it nearly impossible to work effectively.
In April of 2021, the United States stopped processing visas for Russians wanting to visit the U.S., allowing only those with diplomatic ties, or applying for a green card.
Russian refugees could still apply for U.S. visas, but they had to do it through a third country, Poland, being the closest place to do it.
They were met with few roadblocks — until now.
The fallout of the crushing sanctions and the increased shaming by the Western world of Putin’s actions in Ukraine has spilled over to those seeking safety abroad.
Ukrainians have been allowed to cross, waived through with the flash of their Ukrainian passport, applying — and approved — for humanitarian visas that allow them to stay in the U.S. for at least a year or more while living and working legally.
Marina Solovska, a U.S. citizen living in Beverly Hills, flew to Ukraine to bring family members to the United States after the town they were living in was attacked, a journey through five countries before arriving in Tijuana. In an interview with Al Jazeera, Solovska said:
“It felt like a miracle that after four hours, we, including a baby, were let in.”
Russian asylum seekers tell a different story.
Nataliia Poliakova, a refugee from Kyiv, fled the war with her family, but she and her family were denied. After being refused entry, she said:
“We were told that they [CPB officers] would do everything possible to let us through. But at night, the officer said that we hadn’t even asked to come. And today we were told that they would not let Russians and Belarusians through at all.”
Why this particular port-of-entry? Why not through Canada, or any of the dozen other crossings across the southern border with Mexico?
Secret Telegram channels have been set up, detailing routes and giving tips on how to best go undetected, telling asylum seekers to buy cars with California plates. (Those traveling by car are stopped less frequently, than those on foot.)
All these tips help increase their chances of getting onto U.S. soil. You can’t request asylum until you are actually in the country.
Even following these tips is no guarantee. Entry for refugees is at the discretion of those standing between them and freedom. Some from Russia made the cut, but the majority haven’t been as fortunate.
Instead, they are camping at the crossing with their families for days on end, causing Mexican officials to clear camps that are increasing in number and disrupting those who regularly travel between the two countries.
There doesn’t appear to be an easy solution. With Ukrainian and Russian refugees coming in record numbers — reports have been as high as 300 times what it has been in recent years —and with Putin unwilling to stop his attack, one thing is certain — the situation at the border won’t be ending anytime soon.
Follow Ty Ross on Twitter @cooltxchick