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US fast-tracks entry of Ukrainians as others reach Mexican border

TIJUANA, Mexico (AP) — The United States has sharply increased the number of Ukrainians admitted into the country on the Mexican border, as more refugees fleeing the Russian invasion follow the same circuitous route.

A government recreation center in the Mexican border city of Tijuana swelled to around 1,000 refugees on Thursday, city officials said. A canopy under which the children had been playing football just two days earlier was crowded with people lined up in chairs and lined with bunk beds.

Tijuana has suddenly become a last stop for Ukrainians seeking refuge in the United States, where they are attracted by friends and families ready to welcome them and convinced that the United States will be a more suitable refuge than Europe.

News quickly spread on social media that a loose coalition of volunteers, largely drawn from Slavic churches in the western United States, daily guide hundreds of refugees from Tijuana airport to temporary shelters, where they wait two to four days for US authorities to admit them. on humanitarian parole. In less than two weeks, volunteers worked with US and Mexican officials to build a remarkably efficient and expanding network to provide food, security, transportation and shelter.

Ukrainian refugees wait in a gymnasium on April 5, 2022 in Tijuana, Mexico.

U.S. officials on Wednesday began directing Ukrainians to a pedestrian crossing in San Diego temporarily closed to the public, hoping to process 578 people there a day with 24 officers, said Enrique Lucero, director of migrant affairs for the city of Tijuana.

Vlad Fedoryshyn, a volunteer with access to a waiting list, said Thursday the United States processed 620 Ukrainians in 24 hours, while about 800 more were arriving in Tijuana daily. The volunteers say the United States previously admitted a few hundred Ukrainians a day.

CBP did not provide numbers in response to questions about operations and plans over the past two days, saying only that it had expanded its facilities in San Diego to handle humanitarian cases.

On Thursday, Ukrainians steadily arrived and left the bustling recreation center, carrying large suitcases. Some wore winter coats in exceptionally hot weather.

A Tijuana camp that had held hundreds of Ukrainians near the busiest border crossing with the United States has been dismantled. The refugees dispersed to the recreation center, churches and hotels to wait.

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

US fast-tracks entry of Ukrainians as others reach Mexican border
Mexican volunteer Felix Lara prepares tacos for Ukrainian refugees at a makeshift camp near the border, April 4, 2022, in Tijuana, Mexico.

“We feel so lucky, so blessed,” said Tatiana Bondarenko, who traveled through Moldova, Romania, Austria and Mexico before arriving in San Diego with her husband and 8 children. , 12 and 15 years old. His final destination was Sacramento, California. , to live with her mother, whom she had not seen for 15 years.

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

At the Tijuana airport, weary travelers entering Mexico as tourists in Mexico City or Cancun are directed to a makeshift lounge in the terminal with a black felt-tipped sign that reads “Ukrainian Refugees Only.” This is the only place to register to enter the United States

The waiting list stood at 973 families or single adults on Tuesday.

“We realized we had a problem the government wasn’t 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 welcome Ukrainian families and 100 others. the refugees sleep on air mattresses and benches.

Metzger, whose pastoral work has taken him to Ukraine and Hungary, calls the operation “duct tape and glue,” but refugees prefer it to overwhelmed European countries, where millions of Ukrainians have settled.

US fast-tracks entry of Ukrainians as others reach Mexican border
Ukrainian refugees wait in a makeshift camp near the border on April 4, 2022 in Tijuana, Mexico.

The Biden administration has said it will accept up to 100,000 Ukrainians, but Mexico is the only route producing large numbers. Appointments at US consulates in Europe are infrequent and refugee resettlement takes time.

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

The administration paroled more than 76,000 Afghans through US airports in response to the departure of US troops last year, but nothing similar is brewing for the Ukrainians. Conditional release, which grants temporary protection from deportation, is generally granted for two years for Afghans and one year for Ukrainians.

Oksana Dugnyk, 36, was hesitant to leave her home in Bucha but acquiesced to her husband’s wishes before Russian troops invaded the town and left streets strewn with corpses behind. The couple were worried about violence in Mexico with three young children, but the strong presence of volunteers in Tijuana reassured them and a friend from Ohio agreed to shelter them.

US fast-tracks entry of Ukrainians as others reach Mexican border
Ukrainian refugees follow a volunteer closer to the San Ysidro port of entry as they prepare to cross the border on April 4, 2022 in Tijuana, Mexico. About 200 to 300 Ukrainians have been admitted daily at the San Ysidro crossing this week, and hundreds more have arrived in Tijuana, according to volunteers who manage the waiting list. There were 973 families or single adults waiting on Tuesday.

“We have food. We have a place to stay,” Dugnyk said a day after arriving at the Tijuana Recreation Center, where hundreds of people were sleeping on a basketball court. “We hope everything will be fine.”

Alerted by SMS or on social networks, Ukrainians are summoned to the border post when their number approaches.

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

Metzger, the pastor of Chula Vista, said his church could not continue its round-the-clock pace of helping refugees for long, and he suspects US authorities won’t embrace what the volunteers have done.

“If you make something go well, then everyone is going to come,” he said. “We make it easy. Eventually, I’m sure they’ll say, ‘No, we’re done.’ »

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