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More Ukrainians fleeing Russian invasion denied entry at US-Mexico border

U.S. officials at the San Ysidro border are turning away Ukrainians fleeing from the Russian invasion.

Friday morning, Nataliia Poliakova was one of more than a dozen war refugees who was denied access.

She fled her home in Kyiv five days after Russia’s invasion. Poliakova has lost track of the number of times she’s tried to enter the United States since arriving in Tijuana on Tuesday.


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“Again and again and again,” she said. “Like 40 times. On car, on foot, at different borders here.”

Title 42, a Trump-era health order, gives border officials the authority to turn back asylum seekers at the border. It also gives them the discretion to grant exemptions on a case-by-case basis.

On Thursday, with the help of several lawyers, a Ukrainian family who also fled the war was allowed into the country. They remained in Customs and Border Protection (CBP) custody Friday.

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Although hundreds of Ukrainian and Russian asylum seekers have crossed into the United States through San Ysidro in recent years, these are the first cases of asylum seekers coming since the invasion began.

Blaine Bookey, a lawyer and director of the Center for Gender & Refugee Studies at UC Hastings College of Law, said the family was taken into CBP custody Thursday morning for processing.

Matthew Bowler
Ukrainian war refugee Nataliia Poliakova is shown here in Tijuana, Mexico. March 11, 2022. She fled Kyiv on the fifth day of the war and eventually ended up in Tijuana. Poliakova has family in Los Angeles, but border official turn her away telling her she can not enter the United States because of the pandemic.

The family had been denied entry into the United States twice before Thursday, with border agents citing Title 42.

Bookey was unsure how long the process would take, but said, “hopefully we’ll be hearing from them soon that they made it through.”

The family — which is made up of a mother and three children — plan to stay with relatives in the Bay Area, she added.

A chance encounter

Bookey’s involvement in this case happened by chance.

She came to Tijuana to help Haitian asylum seekers and came across the Ukrainian family while helping an unaccompanied minor get into the United States.

“We saw a family sort of huddled on the ground together crying,” she said.

The family had fled Ukraine after the Russian invasion. They drove to Moldova and made their way to Romania before boarding a flight to Mexico City.

Bookey called CBP officials and reached out to other immigration lawyers in the area like Erika Pinheiro from Al Otro Lado.

Unequal treatment

After the Ukrainian family was granted entry into the United States, Bookey continued her work with Haitian asylum seekers — many of whom have been turned away from the border via Title 42.

Matthew Bowler
A young Ukrainian girl with her family is at the Tijuana side of the San Yisdro port of entry trying to come into the United States, March 11, 2022.

The Haitians were happy to hear that the Ukrainian family was able to get into the country, but questioned why they were still being denied access.

Bookey has spent all week in Tijuana working with Haitian families seeking asylum in the United States. The Ukrainian family reminded her of one Haitian family — also a mother with three children, including a three-year-old with an undiagnosed skin infection that has her in constant pain.

“You couldn’t have a starker contrast in terms of their treatment,” she said.

CBP did not respond to questions about its use of discretion.

More Ukrainians fleeing Russian invasion denied entry at US-Mexico border

Bookey said there is no good reason why one family should be allowed in, but another denied.

“I think that there is no way around it. It’s racist policies that are being applied to Black and brown people differently than being applied to others,” she said. “And that was the intention behind this policy under the Trump administration and Stephen Miller and is very unfortunately being carried over by this administration.”

Others continue to wait

Although one Ukrainian family was granted entry Thursday, dozens of Ukrainian and Russian nationals were still waiting for their opportunity Friday.

Poliakova said she cannot go back to Kyiv.

“We cannot return back home because of the war, the bombs, the rockets and Putin,” she said.

Her aunt, Jenya Files, is ready to welcome Poliakova into the United States. She drove down to San Ysidro from Los Angeles hoping today would be the day.

“I’m sitting, waiting, having to drive back home,” she said. “Today is my daughter’s first birthday.”

Files was frustrated by the policies keeping her niece from getting a chance to request asylum in the United States; particularly after officials in Washington D.C. have expressed support for the Ukrainian people.

“Jenn Psaki came out and said the United States is prepared to help Ukrainian refugees,” she said. “What’s happening now is beyond unethical. It’s un-American. How can we say this is the land of free and opportunities when we close the borders?”

Matthew Bowler
A Ukrainian woman holding her family's passports is in Tijuana at the San Ysidro Port of Entry hoping to be allowed into the United States, March 11, 2022.