US speeds up entry for Ukrainians as more people reach Mexico border

TIJUANA, MEXICO – The United States has sharply increased the number of Ukrainians admitted to the country at the Mexican border as more and more refugees flee the Russian invasion following the same route.

A government recreation center in the Mexican border city of Tijuana grew to about 1,000 refugees on Thursday, according to city officials. A canopy under which the children had been playing ball just two days before was packed with rows of chairs and bunk beds.

Tijuana has unexpectedly become the last stop for Ukrainians seeking refuge in the United States, where they are drawn in by friends and family ready to host them and convinced that America will be their home. hidden more suitable than Europe.

News spread quickly on social media that a loose coalition of volunteers, largely from Slavic churches in the western United States, was guiding hundreds of refugees daily from Tijuana airport to temporary shelters, where they wait two to four days for U.S. officials to receive them. on humanitarian parole. In less than two weeks, volunteers worked with U.S. and Mexican officials to build a greatly expanded and effective network for food, security, transportation, and shelter.

Enrique Lucero, Tijuana’s director of migration affairs, said US officials began leading Ukrainians on Wednesday to a pedestrian crossing in San Diego that temporarily closed in the hope of receiving 578 people a day there with 24 officers.

Vlad Fedoryshyn, a volunteer with waitlist access, said on Thursday that the US had processed 620 Ukrainians in 24 hours, while about 800 others arrived in Tijuana daily. Volunteers said that the United States had previously taken in several hundred Ukrainians daily.

CBP did not provide numbers in response to questions about operations and plans over the past two days, only saying that it has expanded facilities in San Diego to handle humanitarian cases.

On Thursday, Ukrainians regularly arrive and leave the bustling entertainment center, driving large suitcases. Some wear winter coats in unusually warm weather.

A Tijuana camp that once held hundreds of Ukrainians near the busiest border area with the US has been dismantled. Refugees dispersed to entertainment centers, churches and hotels to wait.

Volunteers, who wear blue and yellow badges representing the Ukrainian flag but no group or leader name, start a waiting list on sticky notes and then switch to a mobile app commonly used to track church attendance. Ukrainians are required to report to a US border crossing when their numbers approach, a system organizer likened to waiting for a table in a restaurant.

“We feel so lucky, so blessed,” said Tatiana Bondarenko, who traveled through Moldova, Romania, Austria and Mexico before arriving in San Diego with her husband and children, aged 8, 12 and 15. , to live with her mother, whom she had not seen in 15 years.

Another Ukrainian family poses for a photo nearby under a US Customs and Border Protection sign at San Diego’s San Ysidro port of entry, the busiest intersection between the US and Mexico. Volunteers under the trees provide snacks while refugees wait for their families to pick them up or a bus 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 concourse in the terminal with a sign in black marker that reads “Forwards only.” Ukrainian refugees.” This is the only place to apply to the US

The waiting list was 973 families or single adults as of Tuesday.

“We realized we had a problem,” said Phil Metzger, pastor of Calvary Church in the San Diego suburb of Chula Vista, which has about 75 members who are head of Ukrainian homes and 100 others. The government will not deal with it. Refugees sleep on air mattresses and benches.

Metzger, whose pastoral work has taken him to Ukraine and Hungary, calls the operation “tape and glue”, but the refugees who like it overwhelm European countries, where millions of Ukrainians have settled .

The Biden administration has said it will take in up to 100,000 Ukrainians, but Mexico is the only route of mass production. Appointments at US consulates in Europe are scarce, and refugee resettlement takes a long time.

The authorities set a resettlement limit of 125,000 refugees for the 12-month period ending September 30, but accepted only 8,758 people on March 31, including 704 Ukrainians. In the previous year, it limited refugee resettlement to 62,500 people but accepted only 11,411 people, including 803 Ukrainians.

The authorities paroled more than 76,000 Afghans through US airports in response to the departure of US troops last year, but nothing similar has happened to the Ukrainians. Parole, which allows temporary protection from deportation, is usually given for two years for Afghans and one year for Ukrainians.

Oksana Dugnyk, 36, hesitated to leave her home in Bucha but agreed to her husband’s wishes before Russian troops invaded the town and left the streets littered with corpses. The couple worried about violence in Mexico with their three young children, but the strong volunteer presence in Tijuana reassured them, and a friend in Ohio agreed to organize for them.

“We have food. We have a place to stay,” Dugnyk said a day after arriving at the Tijuana entertainment center, where hundreds of people sleep on the basketball court. “We hope everything goes well.”

Alerted by text message or social media, the Ukrainians were summoned to the border as their numbers approached.

The arrival of Ukrainians comes as the Biden administration prepares for much larger numbers as pandemic-related asylum limits for all nationalities end on May 23. As of March 2020. , the United States used Title 42 rights, named for the 1944 public health law, to suspend rights. seek asylum under US law and international treaties.

Metzger, the pastor of Chula Vista, said his church cannot continue its 24-hour-a-day pace of helping refugees, and he doubts US authorities will accept what volunteers do. did.

“If you make something go well, then people will come,” he said. “We’re making it too easy. In the end, I’m sure they’ll say: No, we’re done.”

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