On the night of Feb. 24, as Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Yulia Astapova fled with her nine-year-old daughter. They spent three days waiting in a car at the Polish border with no food. Once across, she worked in a textile factory, where her boss paid for her passage to Mexico. From here, they planned to cross into the U.S.
“Nobody could ever imagine there could be a war. Mentally, until the last minute, we couldn’t accept that news,” said Ms. Astapova, a 31-year-old library manager, as she sat in the Tijuana airport. “But when it started, there was no other choice.”
She is set to be among the last Ukrainian refugees to enter the United States via the twisting pipeline that runs through this industrial border city.
President Joe Biden on Thursday announced a clampdown that, as of next week, will turn Ukrainians back at the Mexican border. Instead, they will be channelled into a new program that will require them to remain in Europe while their applications to enter the U.S. are processed. They will also need an American sponsor with enough funds to support them.
“This program will be fast. It will be streamlined. And it will ensure the United States honours its commitment to go to the Ukrainian people and they need not go through our southern border,” Mr. Biden told reporters at the White House.
Starting Monday, American border guards will no longer exempt Ukrainians from Title 42, a policy that allows for immediate deportation of asylum seekers under the pretext of controlling the global pandemic. Mr. Biden has previously announced that he would lift Title 42 for all migrants on May 23. But he has come under increasing political pressure to extend it, and its renewed use to bar Ukrainians could signal that he will keep it in place.
The President pledged last month to take in 100,000 Ukrainians fleeing the war but did not set up a system to make it happen. Ukrainians cannot fly to the U.S. without a visa, so they figured out a workaround: They can enter Mexico visa-free and, once at the U.S. land border, seek humanitarian or refugee status. Some 15,000 Ukrainians have entered the United States using this route.
American volunteers, NGOs and church groups, with the support of Mexican authorities, have built an efficient system to manage the flow.
Ukrainians are greeted at the Tijuana airport, given a number and a QR code that assigns them a place in line to cross the border, then whisked by bus to the city-owned Benito Juarez sports complex. They stay anywhere from a couple of hours to two days, depending on congestion at the border. When their number is called, they are bussed to San Diego’s San Ysidro pedestrian crossing.
Andrey Kalchenko has been volunteering in Tijuana for the past two weeks as a driver. A 40-year-old who owns an avionics company in Sacramento, Calif., Mr. Kalchenko himself emigrated from Ukraine in 1999.
“A part of my family is in Ukraine. People are struggling. When my friends and my family send me pictures of their houses destroyed, I want to give them support,” he said as he piloted a van through the city’s hilly sprawl toward the airport.
The Benito Juarez complex can hold about 1,500 people at a time. One afternoon this week, volunteers served up hot meals, and provided legal services and medical attention, while some refugees rested on bunk beds under a large tent in the courtyard. Others gathered to sing folk songs, toss around a football or share their stories.
Oksana Purnak escaped to Poland with her two teenaged sons during the first week of the war. Along the way, she recounted, air-raid sirens blared in every town they passed. They had to repeatedly get off the road to take cover in bomb shelters. On reaching the U.S., she would head to Chicago, where her brother lives.
“It was very hard to leave Ukraine. We didn’t have any plans to, but we were forced to because we were afraid for our lives,” said Ms. Purnak, a 42-year-old farm worker.
David Miramontes, a San Diego banker, started helping out at the border last month. He previously did a tour of duty with the U.S. Peace Corps in Ukraine, and speaks five languages – Ukrainian, Russian, Polish, Spanish and English – putting his services as an interpreter in high demand.
The first Ukrainians to arrive had to sleep on the streets near the border for four days at a time. Then, the state and local governments set up the sports complex for them, and volunteers poured in. U.S. border guards also helped by opening an entrance dedicated exclusively to processing Ukrainians.
“Ukrainians are very hospitable people, very good people and it’s very unfair what’s happening to them,” Mr. Miramontes, 27, said. “We can’t give them peace, but we can give them a little bit of help and a little bit of solace.”
Mexican officials are eyeing the current setup for Ukrainians as a model for handling future waves of migrants, particularly if Mr. Biden lifts Title 42 and it causes another influx of caravans from Central America.
“I want to do better with the other caravans we will receive. The Ukrainian people have taught us,” said Adriana Minerva Espinoza Nolasco, the undersecretary for migrant affairs in the Baja California state government. “The next caravan, if they come to our state, we have to be more protective with these people, we have to be more empathetic.”
Ms. Espinoza said the Ukrainians have been significantly more organized than previous waves of migrants that regularly arrive in this metropolis of two million. They have also received far more help from U.S. volunteers and community groups. “I really want to have the same support when we receive these other caravans,” she said.
For now, all of this is in flux. If Mr. Biden were to lift Title 42 in May, it would reopen Ukrainians’ Mexican route to the U.S., raising questions about whether he is now planning to leave it in place. Also unclear is how well the new system for processing Ukrainian refugees in Europe will work.
Julia Bikbova, a Chicago immigration lawyer who is helping Ukrainians arriving in the U.S., said many details are still unknown, such as how long it would take to process applications for Ukrainians to travel to the U.S. and whether, once admitted, they would automatically be allowed to work or would have to apply for that separately.
The announcement also doesn’t do anything to speed up the process of getting work permits for the Ukrainians who have already arrived, Ms. Bikbova said. They currently must wait six to 12 months for their applications to be approved.
“Let these people work immediately,” she said. “Many of them are seeing their homes destroyed. What do they have to live off?”
Ms. Astapova knew she faced an uncertain future in the U.S. But she said she was determined to find a way forward.
“We’re expecting it’s not going to be easy. My plan is to stay and work, no matter how hard it’s going to be,” she said, wiping away tears. “I have to support myself and I have to support my daughter’s future.”
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