Even before the war, thousands of people were fleeing Russia for the United States

LOS ANGELES — Last fall, Iuliia Shuvalova and Sergei Ignatev, a young Russian couple, sold their car and took out a loan to pay for a vacation at a resort in Mexico’s Riviera Maya.

But they weren’t going on vacation. And they had no intention of returning to Russia.

Once in Cancun, the couple bought flights to Tijuana, a city just across the border from San Diego, and stayed there just long enough to buy a used car with a California license plate. . At 4 a.m. on December 2, they joined a line heading for the US border crossing in their black, $3,000 Chrysler 200.

Ms Shuvalova, 24, a political activist, said she was immediately honest with US officers when they reached the inspection booth. “Sorry, we’re Russians,” she told them. “We need asylum.”

At least two million Ukrainians have fled Russia’s assault on their country to neighboring countries, and Russians have also left their country in recent weeks amid crushing economic sanctions and a harsh crackdown on public dissent. . But a Russian exodus to the United States was already well underway, according to counts of border crossings over the past year, as the number of Russians seeking asylum at the southern border reached the highest number of recent history.

More than 4,100 Russians crossed the border without permission in fiscal year 2021, nine times more than the previous year. This fiscal year, which began October 1, the numbers are even higher – 6,420 in the first four months alone.

Ukrainians have also crossed in greater numbers, with 1,000 arrests in the first four months of fiscal 2022 – some as recent as this week – compared to 676 in 2021.

Like Ms. Shuvalova and Mr. Ignatev, many newly arrived Russians are supporters of jailed Russian opposition leader Aleksei A. Navalny and have said they no longer feel safe in their homeland. These include LGBTQ people and religious minorities, such as Jehovah’s Witnesses, who have been ostracized and harassed.

“I get calls every other day; people fled Russia like crazy,” said Anaida Zadykyan, a Los Angeles immigration lawyer who helps Russians file asylum claims.

“Politically, times in Russia are worse than under Stalin; people live in terror,” said Ms Zadykyan, who grew up in Moscow. “Economically, there is no money. People feel they can’t survive.

The spike in Russian migration across the southern border coincides with a confluence of factors that have made it virtually impossible for Russians to enter the United States directly, and the number of asylum seekers has soared in the months since. preceded the invasion of Ukraine.

Tense relations between the United States and Russia had hampered visa processing at the United States Embassy in Moscow, as consular operations had also halted in neighboring countries due to pandemic closures. All of this limited legal options for traveling to the United States, while Russians could still enter Mexico with relative ease, needing only a visa they had obtained electronically.

Some Ukrainians have arrived at the US border since the Russian invasion began driving millions out of the country, although exact numbers have yet to be made public.

A mother and her three children who showed up at the San Diego border on Wednesday were denied entry, according to an immigrant advocate with knowledge of the matter, but US authorities informed the family the next day that they would be allowed to enter.

Ukrainians in the United States have inundated immigration lawyers with calls asking how they can sponsor relatives stranded in Poland and other countries. “There’s a new panic and the demand is overwhelming,” said Jeff Khurgel, a Russian-speaking attorney in Irvine, Calif. US consulates in some European cities have started to fast-track visas, he said.

Russians and Ukrainians make up only a small fraction of all people crossing the southern border. But unlike most migrants from Mexico and Central America, who have often been turned away since the start of the pandemic, they are allowed to file asylum claims at ports of entry. And while a large majority of asylum claims are ultimately denied, two-thirds of those from Russia and Ukraine are successful, according to government data analyzed by Syracuse University’s Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse. .

Between June and February 21, all but one week, Russians were among the top three nationalities assisted by the San Diego Rapid Response Network, which provides food and shelter to migrants after they are released from custody in the American border. The network has also received a small but growing number of Ukrainians, and volume is expected to increase following the Russian invasion, assuming access to Mexico remains relatively easy.

“It’s about to become a torrent,” said Lou Correa, a Democratic representative from California who recently testified in Congress about what he witnessed at the San Ysidro Port of Entry near San Diego. “You’re going to have destitute Ukrainians and starving Russians.”

A flight he boarded from Cancun to Tijuana six weeks ago was packed with Russian speakers, he said in an interview.

To qualify for asylum in the United States, applicants must establish a well-founded fear of persecution because of their race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular group. particular social. All those who cross without a visa are placed in deportation proceedings, and file an application for asylum during the court hearings.

LGBTQ people from Russia have been seeking asylum in the United States for years. But in recent years the pressure against them in Russia has intensified with a series of discriminatory state-sanctioned policies, particularly in the Russian republic of Chechnya, according to advocates who have worked with the new immigrants.

“The increase in the number of LGBTQ asylum seekers crossing the border reflects the desperation people feel,” said Tess Feldman, immigration attorney at the Los Angeles LGBT Center.

Jehovah’s Witnesses, subjected to raids and imprisonment since a Russian court branded the Christian denomination an extremist group in 2017, are heading to the US border with photos of themselves worshiping and proof that ‘they were baptized,’ said Mr. Khurgel, the immigration attorney.

Most Russians crossing San Diego-area border crossings followed advice shared by groups on the encrypted messaging app Telegram – on how to plan the trip, find car dealerships in Tijuana and avoid to arouse suspicion. (Hint: don’t buy a thresher car.)

In December, when a record number of 2,000 Russians were encountered, officers fired on two vehicles carrying 18 Russians as they ran towards the San Ysidro port of entry. Bullets hit one car, which hit the other, and two migrants were slightly injured.

Ilia Kiselev, 29, a Russian opposition activist who made the trip in November, said he felt increasingly vulnerable after a Russian court last June closed organizations linked to Mr. Navalny, the imprisoned Kremlin critic, as extremists. He attended opposition rallies and hoisted posters denouncing the September legislative elections as a sham. Police in his hometown of Yaroslavl took down his information and then came to pick him up from his home, he said.

“I knew I was a target and had to get out of Russia before it was too late,” Kiselev said in a recent interview at a Los Angeles cafe.

In late November, he paid $1,500 for a vacation package to Playa del Carmen, a popular beach town south of Cancun. Once there, he spent $220 on plane tickets to Tijuana and Mexico City; he had never intended to fly to the capital, but had read on Telegram that Mexican officials had detained Russians with one-way tickets to the border town.

From Tijuana, Mr. Kiselev and a fellow Russian traveled to the border on a bright red Honda motorcycle.

After applying for asylum, they were handcuffed and held in a room with about 15 people, mostly from Russia, he recalled, until they were allowed to travel to Los Angeles.

His roommate, Vadim Fridovskii, 34, another activist, was turned away by US officers who were standing a few meters from the port of entry. (Asylum claims can only be made by people who touch US soil.) A few hours later, Mr. Fridovskii and his group managed to make it to the counter and apply for asylum.

Before deciding to seek asylum in the United States, Ms. Shuvalova and Mr. Ignatev said they had participated in activities organized by supporters of Mr. Navalny in their hometown of Ulyanovsk.

“We saw with our own eyes people beaten and arrested; we could be next,” said Ms Shuvalova, a chemist, as she sat next to her husband, a chef, on a recent afternoon.

The couple attempted to enter Poland, but were denied visas. So they turned to social media, where people exchanged information on how to enter the United States through Mexico.

They told their families they were planning a beach vacation in Mexico.

“They would never understand the truth. They think we are zombies, programmed by Western propaganda,” Ms Shuvalova said.

In late November, the couple boarded a charter flight from Moscow to Cancun, with two carry-ons and a suitcase between them. The flight was full, the couple recalls.

They spent a few nail-biting days in Cancun planning their trip to Tijuana after learning that Mexican authorities had arrested Russians in hotels. At the border town, they bought a car and, using a GPS, drove to the border.

As their car crawled towards the checkpoint, Ms Shuvalova said, she was shaking.

When they reached the window and asked for asylum, “the American officers laughed and said, ‘Oh, no more Russians,'” she recalled, before asking them to step aside.

After two days in detention, the couple were taken by bus to a San Diego shelter with a notice to appear in immigration court, their disposable car seized by US authorities.

Seeing the events unfold in Ukraine and Russia, they were horrified but also particularly grateful to have left their homeland, even though some relatives call them “traitors”, Mr Ignatev said. The couple are expecting their first child, who will be American.

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