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Ukrainian refugees find their way to the US via Mexico

TIJUANA, Mexico — Hundreds of Ukrainian refugees arriving daily have a message for family and friends in Europe: The quickest way to settle in the United States is to book a flight to Mexico.

A loose coalition of volunteers, mostly made up of Slavic churches in the western United States, guides 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 US officials to let them in on humanitarian aid Probation. In less than two weeks, volunteers worked with US and Mexican officials to create a remarkably efficient and growing network providing food, security, transportation and shelter.

The volunteers, who wear blue and yellow badges to represent the Ukrainian flag but have no group name or leader, created a waiting list on notepads and later switched to a mobile app typically used to track church attendance. Ukrainians are being told to report to a US border crossing as their numbers approach, a system organizers liken to waiting for a restaurant table.

“We feel so fortunate, 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. Their final destination was Sacramento. California to live with her mother, whom she hadn’t seen in 15 years.

Hundreds of Ukrainian refugees arrive in Tijuana daily, where they wait two to four days for US officials to take them in on humanitarian grounds.
Hundreds of Ukrainian refugees arrive in Tijuana daily, where they wait two to four days for US officials to take them in on humanitarian grounds.
AP

Another Ukrainian family posed for photos nearby under a U.S. Customs and Border Protection sign at the San Diego port of entry in San Ysidro, the busiest crossing point between the U.S. and Mexico. Volunteers under a blue canopy offered snacks while the refugees waited for family to pick them up or for buses to take them to a nearby church.

At Tijuana Airport, weary travelers arriving in Mexico as tourists via Mexico City or Cancun are directed to a makeshift lounge in the terminal, which has a sign in black marker that reads “Ukrainian Refugees Only.” It is the only place where one has to register to enter the United States

About 200 to 300 Ukrainians were admitted at the San Ysidro border crossing every day this week, according to volunteers who manage the waiting list, and hundreds more arrived in Tijuana. On Tuesday, 973 families or single adults were waiting.

Volunteer Zank Bennett from the United States wears a Ukrainian flag on his hat while helping Ukrainians arriving in Tijuana, Mexico, who are looking for a way to seek asylum in the United States.
Volunteer Zank Bennett from the United States wears a Ukrainian flag on his hat while helping Ukrainians arriving in Tijuana, Mexico, who are looking for a way to seek asylum in the United States.
AP

US officials told volunteers they plan to take in about 550 Ukrainians a day as processing moves to a nearby crossing that is temporarily closed to the public. CBP did not provide numbers in response to questions about operations and plans, saying only that it had expanded San Diego facilities to handle humanitarian cases.

“We realized we had a problem that the government wasn’t going to solve, so we solved it,” said Phil Metzger, pastor of Calvary Church in Chula Vista, a suburb of San Diego, where about 75 members are home to Ukrainian families and another 100 refugees sleep on air mattresses and pews.

Mexican volunteer Felix Lara prepares tacos for Ukrainian refugees at a makeshift camp near the border in Tijuana.
Mexican volunteer Felix Lara prepares tacos for Ukrainian refugees at a makeshift camp near the border in Tijuana.
AP

Metzger, whose pastoral work has taken him to Ukraine and Hungary, calls the operation “tape and glue,” but refugees prefer it to overwhelmed 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 route producing large numbers. Appointments at US consulates in Europe are rare and resettling refugees takes time.

The government set a cap for resettlement of 125,000 refugees in the 12-month period ending September 30, but accepted only 8,758 by March 31, including 704 Ukrainians. In the previous year, it had capped resettlement of refugees at 62,500 but only accepted 11,411, including 803 Ukrainians.

In response to the withdrawal of American troops last year, the government paroled more than 76,000 Afghans through US airports, but nothing similar is afoot for Ukrainians.

Ukrainian refugees leave a gym on their way across the border to the United States.
Ukrainian refugees leave a gym on their way across the border to the United States.
AP

Oksana Dugnyk, 36, was reluctant to leave her home in Bucha but gave in to her husband’s wishes before Russian troops invaded the city, leaving streets full of corpses. The couple worried about the violence in Mexico with three young children, but the heavy 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 high school in Tijuana that the city government had opened for about 400 Ukrainians to sleep on a basketball court. “We have food. We have accommodation. We hope everything will be fine.”

Alerted by text or social media, Ukrainians are summoned to a grassy hill and bus stop near the border crossing hours before their numbers are called. The city authorities opened the bus shelter to protect Ukrainians from torrential rain.

Ukrainian refugees follow a volunteer closer to the San Ysidro Port of Entry as they prepare to cross the border.
Ukrainian refugees follow a volunteer closer to the San Ysidro Port of Entry as they prepare to cross the border.
AP

Angelina Mykyta, a college student in Kyiv, admitted to being nervous as her number approached. She fled to Warsaw after the invasion, but decided to take a chance in the United States because she wanted to settle in Kalispell, Montana, with a pastor she knew.

“I think we’ll be fine,” she said while waiting to be escorted from the camp with hundreds of Ukrainians to her final stop in Mexico — a small area with a few dozen folding chairs within earshot of US officials. Some refuse to drink at the final stop for fear of going to the bathroom and missing their turn.

Pauses end as CBP officers approach: “We need a family.” “Give me three more.” “Singles, we need singles.” A volunteer ensures orderly transportation.

Ukrainian refugees speak with a United States Customs and Border Protection officer as they prepare to cross the border. About 200 to 300 Ukrainians were let in at the San Ysidro border crossing every day this week.
Ukrainian refugees speak with a United States Customs and Border Protection officer as they prepare to cross the border. About 200 to 300 Ukrainians were let in at the San Ysidro border crossing every day this week.
AP

The arrival of Ukrainians comes as the Biden administration prepares for much larger numbers when pandemic-related asylum restrictions on all nationalities end on May 23. Since March 2020, the US has used the authority of Title 42, named after a 1944 public health law, to suspend rights under US law and international treaties to seek asylum.

Metzger, the pastor of Chula Vista, said his church could not continue its 24-hour service to help refugees for long and suspects US authorities would not take over what volunteers have been doing.

“If something goes well, everyone will come,” he said. “We make it so easy. At some point I’m sure they’ll say, ‘No, we’re done.'”

https://nypost.com/2022/04/07/ukrainian-refugees-find-route-to-us-goes-through-mexico/ Ukrainian refugees find their way to the US via Mexico

JACLYN DIAZ

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