Ukrainian Refugees Discover the Fastest Way Into the United States Is Through Mexico

"We have food. We have a place to stay. We hope everything will be fine," one mom-of-three says

Ukrainian refugees entering the US via Mexico
Ukrainian refugees entering the U.S. via Mexico. Photo: GUILLERMO ARIAS/AFP

A growing number of Ukrainian refugees — fleeing Russia's invasion and often emotionally drained from the journey — are flying to Mexico as they've discovered this is the quickest way to ultimately enter the U.S., immigration experts tell PEOPLE.

For the last few weeks, with the help of a cadre of volunteers at the San Ysidro Port of Entry, hundred of people have gathered in Tijuana along America's southern border hoping to cross into San Diego.

"People just seemed exhausted, tired," says immigration attorney Julia Neusner, who recently spent about two weeks in the area.

"I spoke with a couple people who told me that they had been traveling for seven days straight," she says.

Ukrainian refugees are flying to Mexico and making their way to the border there because they've been denied visas to fly into the U.S., while Mexico does not require a visa to enter, the immigration experts say.

In Tijuana, hundreds of Ukrainians have waited for days beneath tents and tarps, many sitting in camping chairs, and a covered bus station was "completely full of people," Neusner says.

Volunteers, she says, have erected a tent to serve donated meals, coordinate a handwritten list of names of relatives waiting for intake and provide clothing to families.

Many of these volunteers are from Slavic churches. They also drive the refugees from the airport to hotels, churches and shelters, where they then wait for two to four days before U.S. border officials will allow some of them entry on temporary humanitarian parole, the Associated Press reports.

As of Tuesday night, there were more than 2,000 families on the intake list, according to The New York Times.

"We had to come up with some very immediate decisions about how we were going to house, how we were going to protect our people from weather, how we can assist them with their journey to America and how we can make them comfortable," Inna Levien, one of the volunteers, told California TV station KNSD.

"We feel so lucky, so blessed," Tatiana Bondarenko told the AP. She said she, her husband and their three children traveled through Moldova, Romania, Austria and Mexico before arriving on Tuesday in San Diego.

The family plans to live with Bondarenko's mother — who she hasn't seen in 15 years — in Sacramento, California.

Ukrainian refugees entering the US via Mexico
Ukrainian refugees in Mexico. Julia Neusner

It takes about 30 hours before entry can be made, and "the lines keep getting longer and longer," immigration attorney Taylor Levy tells PEOPLE.

Last week, about 600 people were waiting in a space near a fence separating Mexico from the U.S., "in tents and camped out kind of near the port," as they awaited their entry interviews, says Neusner, noting that the handful of Ukrainian refugees she spoke to were all planning on joining relatives in America.

Tijuana's local government opened an emergency shelter in a former gym with room for about 400. "They're being taken directly from the airport to this shelter," says Neusner.

"So far, so good," Olga Dugnyk, 36, told the AP a day after arriving at the Tijuana gym. She said she fled her home in Bucha, Ukraine, with her three young kids before Russian troops invaded and left behind corpses in the streets. (Russia has denied targeting civilians, despite widespread reports.)

Dugnyk's family will be joining a friend in Ohio, she said, adding: "We have food. We have a place to stay. We hope everything will be fine."

In March, the Biden administration announced that the U.S. would accept up to 100,000 Ukrainians. But so far the government has not detailed how it will receive them — and advocates are growing impatient at what they see as the lack of followup.

Ukrainian refugees entering the US via Mexico
Ukrainian refugees in Mexico at the border. GUILLERMO ARIAS/AFP

"At this point, we're waiting," Mark Hetfield, president and CEO of HIAS, a global refugee agency, tells PEOPLE. "It will be people who meet a certain eligibility criteria but they have not announced what that eligibility criteria is."

Until then, says Levy, it's "a lot of platitudes and no actual action."

"I think it's clear that truly welcoming people with dignity is going to require a lot more than speeches and photo-ops," she says.

"It's going to require a true commitment to having procedures where people don't have to travel through Mexico and sleep on the streets," Levy says, "and go through this very difficult and scary process."

So far 180 Ukrainians are being allowed into the U.S. per day, says Neusner.

Once on U.S soil, "you ask for protection, you ask for asylum" as is a refugee's right under the law, says Levy.

One complication could have been a Trump-era restriction on migrants imposed in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic: Under Title 42, U.S. officials can quickly expel migrants, citing public health concerns. Hundreds of thousands of people have been turned away under this provision, which is expected to be lifted on May 23 — and may then fuel another increase in border crossings.

An exception to Title 42 was made for Ukrainians.

"They're doing the right thing," Neusner says. But only in those cases, she says — while many other migrants wait for an answer.

"There's people who have been waiting at this port of entry for more than a year, in some cases almost two years," she says, "mostly Central Americans, also many Mexicans and some Haitians and some people from African countries and from the Middle East and other parts of the world."

Ukrainian refugees entering the US via Mexico
Ukrainian refugees in Mexico awaiting entry to the U.S. GUILLERMO ARIAS/AFP

Not all Ukrainians who enter America go immediately on to new lives: Some have crossed the border illegally and been taken into custody, NBC News reported earlier this month. Some kids are also being separated from their families in cases where they aren't with their parents.

"We're seeing children who show up at the port of entry ... with their aunts or uncles, cousins, siblings, older siblings — because maybe the man had to stay back and fight," Levy says, "And so the adult sister crossed with her little sister, those children are always separated."

Levy has worked on two such cases, she says, including a teen crossing with her cousin who was then separated and put into federal foster care. It usually takes several weeks for them to get the families reunited, she says, adding, "And those kids are shipped all over the country, depending on where bed space exists."

Still, many Ukrainians arrive at the border hoping for a future in America.

In Tijuana, Angelina Mykyta, who had been a college student in Kyiv, told the AP that she fled to Warsaw, Poland, and then decided to try entering the U.S. to settle with a pastor in Montana.

"I think," she said, "we'll be okay."

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