TIJUANA, Mexico – Hundreds of Ukrainian refugees arriving daily are sending messages to family and friends in Europe: the quickest way to settle in the United States is to book a flight to Mexico.
Voluntary volunteer organizations, mostly from Slavic churches in the western United States, guide hundreds of refugees daily from the airport in the Mexican border city of Tijuana to hotels, churches, and shelters, where they wait two to four days for U.S. officials to recognize them. then on humanitarian terms. In less than two weeks, volunteers worked with U.S. and Mexican officials to build an incredibly efficient and expanding network to provide food, security, transportation, and shelter.
The volunteers, who carry blue and yellow signs to represent the Ukrainian flag but have no group name or leader, started a waiting list on notebooks and later switched to a mobile app that is usually used to monitor church attendance. Ukrainians are said to arrive at the US border crossing point as their numbers approach, a system that organizers liken to waiting at a restaurant table.
“We feel so lucky, so blessed,” said Tatiana Bondarenko, who traveled through Moldova, Romania, Austria and Mexico before arriving in San Diego on Tuesday with her husband and children, ages 8, 12 and 15. Her final destination was Sacramento, California, to live with her mother, whom she had not seen in 15 years.
Another Ukrainian family lined up nearby to take pictures under the sign of the US Customs and Border Protection at the San Ysidro port of entry in San Diego, the busiest route between the United States and Mexico. Volunteers under the blue canopy offered snacks while refugees waited for the family to see them or buses to transport them to a nearby church.
At Tijuana Airport, weary tourists entering Mexico as tourists in Mexico City or Cancun are referred to a temporary terminal at the airport with a black sign that reads “For Ukrainian refugees only.” It’s the only place to sign up to enter the United States
About 200 to 300 Ukrainians were admitted to the San Ysidro cross daily during the week, and hundreds more arrived in Tijuana, according to waiting list volunteers. On Tuesday, 973 families or single adults were waiting.
U.S. officials told volunteers they were aiming to let in about 550 Ukrainians daily while transporting a nearby crossroads that is temporarily closed to the public. CBP did not provide figures in response to questions about actions and plans, saying only that it had expanded facilities in San Diego to address humanitarian issues.
“We had a problem that the government was not going to solve, so we solved it,” said Phil Metzger, pastor of Calvary Church in the San Diego suburb of Chula Vista, where about 75 members of Ukrainian families and another 100 refugees sleep on air mattresses and classes.
Metzger, whose clerical work has taken him to Ukraine and Hungary, calls the operation “tape and glue”, but refugees prefer it to the overwhelming European countries, where millions of Ukrainians have settled.
The Biden administration has said it will take in up to 100,000 Ukrainians, but Mexico is the only way to return large numbers. Schedules at US consulates in Europe are scarce and refugee reconstruction is taking time.
The government set a maximum of 125,000 refugees over a 12-month period ending September 30, but accepted only 8,758 by March 31, of which 704 were Ukrainians. The year before, it set a limit for the resettlement of refugees at 62,500, but took only 11,411, of which 803 were Ukrainians.
The government granted more than 76,000 Afghans a pledge through US airports in response to the departure of US troops last year, but nothing similar is up for grabs for Ukrainians.
Oksana Dugnyk, 36, was reluctant to leave her home in Bucha but agreed to her husband’s wishes before Russian troops stormed the town, leaving the streets strewn with corpses. The couple were worried about violence in Mexico with three young children, but a strong presence of volunteers in Tijuana reassured them and a friend in Ohio agreed to host them.
“So far, so good,” Dugnyk said a day after arriving at a sports hall in Tijuana that the city government opened for about 400 Ukrainians to sleep on a basketball court. “We have food. We have a place to be. We hope everything will be fine. “
Ukrainians are notified by text message or social media and are called to the grass floor and bus stop near the border post a few hours before calling their number. The city government opened a bus stop to protect Ukrainians from torrential rain.
Angelina Mykyta, a university student in Kyiv, admitted her nervousness as her number approached. She fled to Warsaw after the invasion but decided to take a chance on the United States because she wanted to settle with a priest she knew in Kalispell, Montana.
“I think we’ll be fine,” she said as she waited to be escorted from the camp of hundreds of Ukrainians to their final stop in Mexico – a small area with several dozen folding chairs within the hearing of US officials. Some refuse to drink at the final stop for fear of having to go to the bathroom and miss the line.
The cradle ends as CBP executives approach: “We need a family. “Give me three more.” “Single, we need singles.” A volunteer takes care of organized exercise.
The arrival of the Ukrainians comes as the Biden government prepares for a much larger number when the epidemic-linked asylum for all nationalities ends on 23 May. Since March 2020, the United States has used the 42nd title authority, named after the Public Health Act of 1944, to suspend the right to apply for asylum under US law and international conventions.
Metzger, the pastor of Chula Vista, said his church could not continue to help refugees around the clock for a long time and suspected that the US authorities would not adopt what volunteers had done.
“If you make something go well, everyone will come,” he said. “We make it so easy. In the end, I’m sure they will say, “No, we’re done.”