TIJUANA, Mexico — More than 2,000 Ukrainians have made their way to the U.S. border from Mexico over the past 10 days, joining desperate migrants from around the world in what officials expect could become a major border surge as pandemic restrictions are lifted and the continuing fallout from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine reaches America’s shores.
The sudden arrivals in Tijuana present an immediate challenge to U.S. border officials, who are already bracing for a flood of unauthorized migration from countries such as Honduras and Haiti when the U.S. eases its emergency COVID-19 border rules next month. Now, the U.S. must also find a way to accommodate thousands of people fleeing a murderous Russian invasion halfway around the world.
“I’m troubled. I’m tired. We have been here more than two days,” said Nataly Yankova, 48, who fled Ukraine with two adolescent daughters, one in a wheelchair, and two nephews and planned to join her brother who is living in Chicago.
They were among 15 Ukrainian families sitting in folding chairs on a chilly spring night this week, beside a coiled-wire fence that separates Mexico from the United States. It had taken most of them three days to reach the front of the line from which U.S. officials were calling in Ukrainians for entry interviews.
The surge of Ukrainian refugees into Mexico has gained momentum as U.S. embassies and consulates in Europe have struggled to process a barrage of visa and refugee applications.
Only a week ago, just 50 Ukrainian refugees who had flown to Mexico were in the teeming border city of Tijuana, crammed in a small, tunnellike bus stop until they could enter the U.S. Within four days, the backup had ballooned to 500, and a makeshift encampment had sprung up on a patch of grass. By Sunday, as plane after plane disgorged bedraggled war refugees in Tijuana, the number had soared to close to 1,200, about 400 of them sleeping in a gym.
After making harrowing escapes from their homeland and long plane trips to reach Mexico, they soon realized that passage to the U.S. was not automatic. A backlog began to build, and confusion reigned.
To avert a humanitarian crisis, dozens of Russian-speaking volunteers, religious organizations and private groups rushed in to organize food, shelter and medical and logistical support on both sides of the border.
“There is only so much we can do — and we have done a lot working 24/7,” said Olya Krasnykh, who took time off from her real estate development job in San Mateo, California, to organize a response team of about 30 people.
“The system at the border is incredibly inefficient,” said Krasnykh, walkie-talkie in hand. “I don’t know how long we can sustain the volunteer-run effort.”
The Biden administration announced last month that the U.S. would accept 100,000 Ukrainians. But it has not unveiled any details, prompting those with family and friends in the U.S. to pay thousands of dollars to reach Mexico, a country that, unlike the U.S., they can enter without a visa.
“They made an announcement and had no program in place,” Krasnykh said.
On many days, only about 200 refugees have been processed into the country by U.S. border authorities, half as many as arrived on flights.
By the administration’s own estimates, some 18,000 migrants from various countries could arrive each day after the lifting of the coronavirus public health order known as Title 42, three times the current volume. Already, economic hardship has been driving Cubans to the U.S. in numbers not seen in nearly three decades. Border agents encountered more than 50,000 Nicaraguans in 2021, up from 2,291 in 2020, amid a crackdown on dissent by President Daniel Ortega.
Chris Magnus, the Customs and Border Protection commissioner, said in a statement early this week that the agency was bolstering resources and personnel at the border.
“President Biden’s decision to welcome Ukrainian refugees seeking safety in the United States is the right thing to do,” said Blaine Bookey, legal director at the Center for Gender and Refugee Studies at University of California, Hastings. But she said there were questions about Ukrainian migrants getting priority over those from Central America and elsewhere.
“There is no way to look at what’s happening at the southern border other than along racial lines,” she said.
Five Central American migrants, including a young Guatemalan couple with a 3-year-old boy, showed up this week at the edge of the encampment where the Ukrainians were waiting.
They had just made it to Tijuana after clinging to the Bestia, the notoriously dangerous train that traverses Mexico, and were hoping to rest on a spit of grass near a tent. Could they, one of them asked. Their goal was to cross the border.
“It was on the news that the United States is offering asylum,” said Marvin Francisco, 29, from Honduras, who had heard about the impending end of Title 42. “My country is infested with gangsters.”
The Hondurans were allowed to sit on the grass, but they were offered none of the pastries, juice and coffee being handed out around the clock to the Ukrainians.
Tijuana recently opened to Ukrainian refugees a sports complex, Benito Juárez, that in 2018 had been used to house thousands of Central American migrants who had arrived in a caravan with hopes of gaining access to the U.S.
Krasnykh and her team negotiated shelter at the facility with officials from the state of Baja California, who within hours provided mats, Wi-Fi and security. Volunteers outside were preparing hot meals, including borscht, and distributing donated clothes and toys.
The volunteers started a numbered list, initially on a yellow legal pad that has since migrated online with the help of software engineers, to organize applicants for entry into the U.S.
“We started to see chaos. People were getting angry at each other,” said Roman Dubchak, a volunteer from Westfield, Massachusetts, who runs the registration process. “It became very quickly apparent that we needed to create some kind of order,” said Dubchak, who like other volunteers donned a reflective vest and a blue-and-yellow badge, the colors of Ukraine.
By Tuesday evening, the number of families on the list had surpassed 2,000. Refugees were instructed to keep an eye on a messaging group, where they would be notified when it was time to gather their belongings and report to one of three staging tents near the port of entry.
No. 1767 belonged to the family of Anastasiia and Sergii Derezenko, who had traveled with their two children, Denys, 10, and Yeva, 8, as well as their fluffy mini Maltese, Luka. They had abandoned their apartment in the suburbs of Kyiv under Russian shelling, and eventually crossed Europe by train to board a flight from Madrid to Mexico City, where they connected to Tijuana. Friends await them in Portland, Oregon.
A 33-year-old cryptocurrency investor named Denys, No. 1170, said he had paid a smuggler 5,500 euros to guide him over mountains and through dense forest to cross into Romania. “I didn’t want to fight. I don’t know how to fight,” said Denys, who declined to give his last name because he had fled in violation of Ukraine’s order barring military-age men from leaving the country.
A friend in Poland, he said, planned to put his beloved American Staffordshire terrier on a flight to Chicago once he and his girlfriend arrived there.
Like many of those waiting at the border, he said he had never contemplated immigrating to the U.S. before the war. “I had a flat, a car, a dog. I was happy,” he said, standing outside the tent he was sharing with his girlfriend, Rina, and two other people. A sign in Cyrillic posted on the side said: “Don’t leave food on the ground. Keep rats out.”
The family of Daria and Sonia Speranska, two sisters, was cut off from the world when rocket fire hit a village outside Kyiv where they had sought refuge. With no power, the sisters said, they boiled water in the fireplace and rationed food. On the 10th day, they managed to escape in a convoy, and eventually, their parents convinced them that they must depart for the U.S., where they had friends.
“We had no desire to leave to another country. We had a great life, we traveled,” said Daria, 24, who works in information technology.
Sonia, 16, said that she had agreed to come “only because I knew my sister couldn’t go without me; I’m the strong one.”
Several people said they had initially planned to enter the U.S. through official channels, after President Joe Biden’s offer to accept Ukrainians fleeing the war. But when no concrete plan surfaced, they applied for tourist visas, only to be rejected.
Lena Dorosh, 24, a psychologist who fled Chernivtsi with her son, Danyil, 3, said that her family in Oregon helped arrange a 40-hour journey from Bucharest to Tijuana after they were denied visas. On her flights, she encountered families who also had been denied.
Mother and child spent three nights in a tent in Tijuana until it was time for their number, 920, to proceed to the canopy beside the U.S. checkpoint. Volunteers distributed sandwiches and cookies to the refugees, who seemed resigned to the wait.
It was close to 11 p.m. by the time the group of 15 was escorted through the fence to the U.S. processing center, where officers collected their passports, and then fingerprinted and photographed them. Their passports were returned stamped “paroled,” with a handwritten expiration date of April 3, 2023.
When they emerged outside, close to midnight, the refugees were met by vans from Calvary San Diego, a church in nearby Chula Vista, California, that has mobilized to assist the Ukrainians.
Men stretched out to sleep in pews in the sanctuary, while most women and children rested on inflatable mattresses on the ground. In the morning, volunteers helped families arrange travel to their final destinations.
By early afternoon, some of them were already on their way, including the family of Nataly Yankova, who climbed, smiling and waving, into a van bound for Chicago.
As it exited the parking lot, other vans pulled in with fresh arrivals from the border.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.