The U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants (USCRI) visited Tijuana on April 13 to better understand and observe the situation for Ukrainians at the border. In the last month, thousands of Ukrainians have travelled to Mexico on their journey to the United States, where many will be reunited with family. As part of their trip, USCRI vice president AnnaMarie Bena and policy analyst Catharine Christie met with Enrique Lucero, municipal director of Migrant Affairs in Tijuana, and Dagmara Mejía, the head of UNHCR’s field office in Tijuana. They were joined by staff from the USCRI Tijuana office, which for the last two years has provided legal services to asylum seekers at the U.S.-Mexico border and has partnered with the Mexican government and other local agencies. USCRI visited the Benito Juarez sports complex, a public gymnasium that had been repurposed as a shelter to address the needs of Ukrainian refugees arriving in the city. USCRI also visited a separate shelter for LGBTQ+ asylum seekers, serving individuals from Central America, South America, and Haiti.
Mexican officials and Ukrainians in the shelter confirmed that it has become nearly impossible to present yourself at an embassy in Europe and obtain a visa as a Ukrainian to travel directly to the United States. Instead, the easiest pathway to enter the United States at this time appears to be through Tijuana, creating a migration pathway from Europe through Mexico. In order to enter Mexico, Ukrainians fill out a form online for a tourist visa, thereby entering the country as tourists and not as refugees or asylum seekers. Ukrainians take many different routes by plane to arrive in either Cancun or Mexico City, and fly from there into the Tijuana airport. They are met by volunteers who register them with their own QR code, per family unit, and transport them to the Benito Juarez shelter. The registration list is used as a waitlist, and families and individuals are notified at the shelter when it is their turn to be bussed to the border.
In the last month, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security dispatched an extra 24 Customs and Border Protection officials to the newly reopened Chaparral border crossing (also known as PedWest) to process Ukrainians 24 hours a day. It is estimated that every 30 minutes, 16 Ukrainians are let into the United States, and on average, Ukrainians wait one to three days to cross. Ukrainians present their passports to CBP officials and they are given humanitarian parole that allows them to remain in the United States temporarily but does not confer permanent status or a pathway to citizenship. Once in the United States, many Ukrainians are reuniting with friends and family, and the majority of Ukrainians who USCRI staff spoke with wanted to return to Ukraine following the war. Mexican officials estimate that between 10,000 and 20,000 Ukrainians have crossed over the Mexican border into the United States since the start of the war, and CBP statistics published on April 18 show that 5,701 Ukrainians were detained at the border in March.
In contrast, and due to the continued use of Title 42, asylum seekers of any other nationality are not allowed to cross into the United States, with limited exceptions. Many asylum seekers have remained in shelters in Tijuana for months, waiting for Title 42 to end so that they can act on their legal right as enshrined in international and U.S. law to seek asylum. In comparison to the Ukrainians arriving to Tijuana, the majority of asylum seekers in Mexico have made their way to the border by foot on an often harrowing journey. Until Title 42 is lifted, scheduled for May 23, normal asylum processing at the border will not restart and many asylum seekers will remain stuck in Mexico.
USCRI, founded in 1911, is a non-governmental, not-for-profit international organization committed to working on behalf of refugees and immigrants and their transition to a dignified life.
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