Russian seek visa at San Ysidro
A U.S. Customs and Border Protection agent listens to Russians seeking a humanitarian visa at the San Ysidro Port of Entry. REUTERS/Jorge Duenes

San Diego immigration experts called Friday for an end to Trump-era immigration restrictions as potentially thousands of desperate migrants from Ukraine and Russia begin to arrive in Tijuana.

The Russians are seeking asylum because of President Vladimir Putin’s arrest of dissidents in the runup to the invasion and afterward, while the Ukrainians — typically mothers with children — are refugees from war itself.

“The past week or so we really started seeing the first big wave of people who are fleeing the conflict,” said Erika Pinheiro, litigation and policy director for Al Otro Lado, a legal assistance organization in Tijuana.

These people are being held back by a Trump-era policy known as Title 42 that closed the border to most asylum seekers because of the coronavirus pandemic, and by the former President’s “remain in Mexico” policy requiring refugees to wait there.

Pinheiro and other local immigration experts spoke with the media at a briefing arranged by the San Diego Rapid Response Network, a partnership of social service agencies led by Jewish Family Service of San Diego that operates migrant shelters.

Pinheiro said that amid “a lot of confusion on the ground” the Ukrainians are at least being given humanitarian visas good for one year. Russians are being turned away, she said, but Customs and Border Protection officers appear to be “more polite” to the Russians than migrants from central America.

She said every morning 20 to 50 people from Russia and its autocratic ally Belarus can be found sleeping outside the San Ysidro port of entry. “Every single person I was speaking to had been arrested at start of invasion,” she said.

Kate Clark, senior director of immigration services at Jewish Family Service, said that so far this year 453 Ukrainians and 1,023 Russians have made it across the border and found assistance in San Diego shelters. Last year, the shelters took in 878 people from Ukraine and 6,946 from Russia. Nearly all are families with young children.

“Our recently arrived guests from Ukraine tend to be female heads of households with their children,” Clark said. “Their spouses have stayed behind to fight for Ukraine’s continued independence.”

She said there have been many instances when Ukrainians and Russians learn of the death of a loved one while in the shelters as the war rages.

Pinheiro of Al Otro Lado said the exodus from Russia and Ukraine began over a year ago, but has significantly increased in recent months, with approximately 30,000 Russians and 10,000 Ukrainians entering Mexico in January and February.

She said those who get to Tijuana typically buy or rent a car in an effort to reach U.S. soil and claim asylum at the first CBP inspection booth.

Esmeralda Flores, immigrant rights and binational affairs advocate for ACLU San Diego & Imperial Counties, called the two Trump-era policies a “national disgrace,” especially Title 42.

“It is clear that this policy has never been about public health,” she said.

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Chris Jennewein

Chris Jennewein is Editor & Publisher of Times of San Diego.