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Pavel Savastyanov at the San Ysidro port of entry, the largest land border crossing between San Diego and Tijuana, Mexico.Adrian Morrow/The Globe and Mail

Leila Kolesnikova is an English teacher from Ivanovo, Russia. Bryan Eubanks is an Iraq War veteran from Conyers, Georgia. They met online in the spring of 2020, and built their relationship during a series of transatlantic visits.

When Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February, Ms. Kolesnikova spoke out against it on social media. In one post, she wore yellow eyeshadow and blue earrings, the colours of the Ukrainian flag. In another, she condemned war.

The 27-year-old was threatened with death, and with being reported to the authorities. Under Russia’s new censorship law, people can be imprisoned for up to 15 years for saying anything contrary to the Kremlin’s official narrative about the invasion.

Leila Kolesnikova (left) and Bryan Eubanks.Handout

“One woman called the police on me, saying I’m a bad influence on her child,” she recounted.

Ms. Kolesnikova tried to escape to the United States. She flew to Mexico and went to the border. Mr. Eubanks, 42, drove from Georgia to meet her. Over the course of four weeks, they say, they have made more than 30 attempts to cross. Ms. Kolesnikova has been turned back every time.

While the U.S. has pledged to accept 100,000 Ukrainians displaced by the invasion, it has not loosened its immigration rules for Russians fleeing President Vladimir Putin’s mounting repression. The U.S. expelled Russians seeking entry more than 7,200 times in the first three months of 2022, according to Customs and Border Protection figures, a spike of 200 per cent over the same period last year.

CBP issued a memo last month directing border guards to exempt Ukrainians from Title 42, an immigration provision that U.S. authorities have used during the pandemic to refuse asylum seekers on public-health grounds. The memo did not include Russians.

They are also ineligible for a new program, set to begin on Monday, that will allow Ukrainians in Europe to apply for U.S. humanitarian visas.

Justin Long, a spokesperson for the agency, said border guards have the discretion to “grant Title 42 exceptions to particularly vulnerable individuals of all nationalities” on a “case-by-case basis.” He did not explain why CBP left Russians out of its explicit Title 42 exemption for Ukrainians.

The White House referred a request for comment to the U.S. State Department, which would not say whether the U.S. government is considering any additional measures to help Russian asylum seekers.

Pavel Savastyanov, a print shop owner from Novosibirsk, became the target of violence and intimidation after printing campaign materials for opposition parties and volunteering for presidential candidate Alexei Navalny.Handout

Pavel Savastyanov is one Russian refugee claimant lucky enough to have made it to the U.S. But it wasn’t easy.

A print shop owner from Novosibirsk, he became a target of violence and intimidation after printing campaign materials for opposition parties and volunteering for long-time Putin critic Alexei Navalny’s presidential campaign. Thugs raided Mr. Savastyanov’s business and threatened to shut it down, he said. Someone smashed up his car and slashed its tires. An arsonist set fire to a door in the hallway outside his apartment.

In December of last year, Mr. Savastyanov, 47, fled to Mexico with his wife and daughter. In Tijuana, they bought a car after hearing they were more likely to be let into the U.S. driving than on foot. Even so, they were sent back during their first two attempts to cross. They succeeded on their third attempt.

After crossing, Mr. Savastyanov was held for 20 days at immigration detention facilities in California and Texas before being released; his wife and daughter were held for 29 days, he said. They are now waiting for their refugee applications to be processed.

“We were fighting against Putin’s regime, but we were turned away. We risk our lives for a better future not just for Russia, but for the entire world,” he said. “We were fighting so this war wouldn’t happen.”

Now, Mr. Savastyanov, a bespectacled, gregarious quipster, spends his days volunteering at San Diego’s San Ysidro border crossing, where he helps recently arrived Ukrainians get their bearings. A reception area on the sidewalk outside the border station offers food and other essentials. Volunteers help co-ordinate rides to shelters and bus tickets to the homes of refugees’ friends and family across the U.S.

“We have everything. We’ve already bought our Lamborghinis, so now we have to do something valuable for others,” Mr. Savastyanov joked one recent morning at the site, where a 4.5-metre metal border wall bumps up incongruously against a suburban outlet mall.

Wayne Little, a San Diego lawyer who has been volunteering his services on the Tijuana side of the border for the past month, said he regularly meets Russians attempting to cross. Many of them make their way to a temporary shelter for Ukrainian refugees at a sports complex.

“I see at least one family every day. Some of them have tried to cross multiple times,” he said.

Ms. Kolesnikova and Mr. Eubanks have spent four weeks trying to cross the border in Tijuana and Ciudad Juarez.Handout

Ms. Kolesnikova and Mr. Eubanks spent a week and a half trying to get over the border here, and another two at Ciudad Juarez.

During one attempt, she said, border guards repeatedly sent her to the back of a thousands-long line of Ukrainians. During another, they told her “there’s no war in Russia.” At one point, she got as far as making her asylum claim, only for another guard who had previously expelled her to notice she had returned and order her turned back once again.

Ms. Kolesnikova and Mr. Eubanks married while in Tijuana and have started the green card application process. They are hoping that, if nothing else, she will finally be able to cross on May 23, when Title 42 is scheduled to lift. President Joe Biden, however, is under tremendous political pressure to continue the policy.

Mr. Eubanks has written to the White House and members of Congress hoping someone will intercede in the case. He lives on disability payments, he said – a consequence of injuries related to his time at war. He also has cancer, and has missed treatments to be with his wife.

To him, it’s incomprehensible that two groups of people fleeing the same dictator are being treated differently.

“Last time I checked, it’s the same war,” he said. “But they’re only letting some people through.”


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