They fled their country and now, Russians opposed to the war can’t get across the U.S. border

Russian refugees and partners Julia and Anton embrace outside the San Ysidro port of entry in Tijuana, Mexico on Thursday, March 17, 2022. They protested their government’s arrest of an opposition leader last year and left the country after it invaded Ukraine. Now they’re hoping to be granted asylum in the U.S., where they have connections to the Bay Area. Anton said there are no “other options but to get in the U.S. In Russia we will be arrested for being against the war, that is not something we want.” (Photo: © Carlos Moreno/Special To The Chronicle)

As the sun rose over the San Ysidro port of entry, Mikhail lay curled over his wife, donated blankets covering them and their makeshift cot. An arm’s length from where the Russian couple slept, coils of barbed wire hung low, a reminder that they are not currently welcome on the U.S. side of the border.

(MSN) TIJUANA, BAJA CALIFORNIA —Mikhail had left Russia in a hurry, two days after the country of his father’s birth invaded the country of his mother’s. He had been living on borrowed time since 2014, when he ripped up his conscription notice refusing to fight in the war against Crimea. If he was ever caught, he said, it would mean a 15-year prison term.

“I will never fight a war where I can kill innocent people, people who might be my cousins, my aunts,” Mikhail said in Russian. “It’s all just wrong.”

Mikhail and his wife Natasha are part of a group of Russians, 19 adults and five children, camped out at the San Ysidro border gate, hoping to be allowed into the United States to stake claims of asylum.

Thousands more Russians traveled to this part of the border before the invasion, an exodus that began after the imprisonment of a popular opposition leader last year. They are able to fly into the Central American country without visas, making this leg of the journey simpler than it is for most migrants who arrive here seeking asylum. But once here, they join a migrant crisis that has only grown more complex since former President Trump closed the border to asylum seekers because of the pandemic.

The Chronicle is identifying migrants by their first names, as all expressed fear of retaliation if they were returned to Russia.

Mikhail has a cousin in Cupertino. His goal is to make it to her home, and from there, start to rebuild the life he suddenly abandoned in Russia.

Yet Mikhail’s Russian passport is as big a problem as Title 42, a Trump-era policy the Biden administration continues to enforce, which cites the COVID-19 pandemic as a basis for the rapid expulsion of migrants and has effectively shut the border to asylum seekers.

On Thursday, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro N. Mayorkas told reporters that Border Patrol agents were reminded they have some leeway with regard to enforcing Title 42, particularly when it comes to those fleeing the crisis in Ukraine, BuzzFeed News reported.

“This was policy guidance that reminded (border officers) of those individualized determinations and their applicability to Ukrainian nationals as they apply to everyone else,” the online news outlet quoted Mayorkas as telling reporters.

This follows a March 11 Department of Homeland Security memo informing U.S. Customs and Border Protection that the agency can, on a case-by-case basis, let those with valid Ukrainian documents bypass Title 42 restrictions that would otherwise keep them from crossing the border because of “the unjustified war of aggression in Ukraine” and the “humanitarian crisis” it’s caused.

DHS didn’t immediately respond to questions about whether its discretionary guidance could be applied to Russian migrants who oppose their government’s war and fear what may happen if they’re forced to return.

When Russia’s latest war began, Mikhail, a photographer and designer, shuttered his family’s printing press in the lakeside town of Pereslavl-Zalessky and joined thousands of others who have reportedly fled Russia, fiercely opposed to their government’s war in Ukraine.

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