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Now safe in the US, Ukrainian asylum seeker reflects on the inequities she witnessed

A Ukrainian war refugee was finally reunited with relatives in California. Now that she’s here, she says asylum seekers from other countries should get the same opportunity. KPBS reporter Gustavo Solis says there is a growing inequity at the southern border.

Nataliia Poliakova is grateful to be safe and with her extended family in Los Angeles after escaping war-torn Ukraine.

However, as the 25-year-old reflects on the harrowing journey that took her from her home in Kiev to the San Ysidro Port of Entry, she can’t help but dwell on the inequities she witnessed along the way.

“There were two Mexican guys sitting with us for like 12 hours and officers from the U.S. told them, we don’t have a place for you guys,” Poliakova said in an interview with KPBS. “There were a lot of families with kids from Cuba and Mexico. But nobody from other countries was allowed.”

At one point, border officials also refused to allow Russian and Belarusian asylum seekers into the country, she said. But the migrants lobbied for each other and eventually persuaded border officials to let other European nationals in.

“We were fighting for them,” Poliakova said. “Every time the officers came, we said you should take this couple from Belarus. They have been here five nights.”

Poliakova’s aunt, Jenya Files, is happy to be reunited with her niece. But she is also outraged that asylum seekers from other countries are not getting the same opportunity.

“I can’t imagine how frustrating it is for the families who are not Caucasian and not white,” she said. “Because they are being looked over.”

Title 42

Advocates for asylum seekers say the main vehicle border officials are using to discriminate is Title 42, a Trump-era public health order issued in the wake of the pandemic.

Historically, federal and international law has given anyone the right to request asylum. And though the majority of requests are denied, they are issued by a judge who has reviewed evidence.

But the Trump administration was able to use Title 42 to circumvent that process. It gives individual Customs and Border Patrol (CPB) agents at ports of entry broad authority to decide the fate of asylum seekers.

Agents have the discretion to turn people away in the name of public health and also grant exceptions on a case-by-case basis.

To date, asylum seekers have been turned back more than 1.5 million times via Title 42, according to CPB data. President Joe Biden, who promised a more humane approach to immigration, has resisted calls to end Title 42.

Lawyers and activists in Tijuana are seeing agents grant exemptions to white asylum seekers while continuing to deny them to black and brown migrants, some of which have been in Tijuana for well over a year.

“How can we say we have a system that is built on the rule of law when you give border officials absolute discretion over a form of probation that is enshrined in our treaties and domestic statues,” said Blaine Bookey, director of the Center for Gender and Refugee Studies.

Bookey went on to say, “You couldn’t have a starker contrast in terms of their treatment.”

CBP sent the following statement when asked to respond to criticism from Bookey and others that agents are using their discretionary power in racist ways:

“The CDC’s Title 42 public health order remains in place with respect to single adults and family units, and the Department of Homeland Security continues to operate in accordance with the Order. Consistent with the CDC Order, DHS is continuing to except particularly vulnerable individuals from Title 42 on a case-by-case basis.”

Different Treatment

Poliakova slept on the street directly outside the border crossing for three days before being allowed in. She said roughly 20 other asylum seekers slept in the same area.

Border officials would let some asylum seekers cross every eight hours, she added. And everyone slept in the same place out of fear that if they left they would miss their opportunity.

The migrants slept in donated blankets and jackets. On a couple occasions, drunk Americans heckled the asylum seekers on their way back to San Diego from a night out in Tijuana, Poliakova said.

“Around 3 a.m. or 4 a.m., drunk as f*** they told us, ‘Oh, you do know the entrance is right there, why don’t you go through?’” she said.

Last year, hundreds of Central American and Mexican asylum seekers congregated in a tent city known as El Chaparral right next to the border crossing hoping to be let in.

They never were. Officers from the Tijuana Police Department and Mexico’s National Guard cleared the camp in February.

Alex Mensing, an activist with Innovation Law Lab, says Russian migrants currently sleeping outside the San Ysidro border crossing are making the same case for themselves as the Central Americans did at El Chaparral.

“They said almost verbatim the same things that people in El Chaparral said about why they are staying near the border,” he said. “They don’t trust the Mexican authorities telling them to go to shelters, they aren’t sure if shelters will be like a prison, and they want to be visible to pressure the agents. And, they don’t want to miss out on the opportunity to cross.”

The main difference, at least right now, is that the European asylum seekers are getting in and haven’t been kicked out of the street, he added.

During a recent visit, Mensing talked to Mexican asylum seekers who were turned away — including a family who fled their home-state of Guererro after their relatives were murdered.

He said they were upset with the inequity but happy that some people were finally getting a chance to ask for asylum.

“One person did say it was racist, they felt the CBP agents were being racist,” Mensing said. “Others didn’t describe it that way. They expressed a combination of hope because somebody was getting in so that meant they might be able to go in soon, but also a keen awareness that they are being treated differently.”

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