TIJUANA, Mexico — Nataliia Poliakova and Katya Yarina met at the San Ysidro Port of Entry, the border crossing that connects Tijuana and San Diego. They're both refugees from the war in Ukraine but come from opposite sides of the conflict.Poliakova, 25, is Ukrainian; she fled Kyiv by herself shortly after the bombing started. Yarina, 38, is Russian; She fled St. Petersburg with her husband and two small children after they faced government persecution for protesting the war.
At first, neither was allowed into the U.S., with border authorities citing a public health measure that allows them to expel asylum seekers. Then, on Monday morning, without explanation, Poliakova was allowed into the U.S. along with other families and individuals from Ukraine. But Customs and Border Protection denied access to Yarina, her family, and several other asylum seekers from Russia who have been waiting — in some cases for days, sleeping on the concrete sidewalk at the port of entry a few feet away from a barrier of concertina wire."We were told that they [CBP officers] would do everything possible to let us through," Yarina told VICE World News. "But at night, the officer said that we hadn't been asked to come. And today we were told that they would not let Russians and Belarusians through at all."The scene at the San Ysidro Port of Entry illustrates the arbitrary and opaque nature of the asylum process at the U.S.-Mexico border, a situation that began under former President Trump but has continued under President Biden. At the start of the pandemic, Trump instituted a rule known as Title 42, ostensibly on public health grounds, under which U.S. border authorities can immediately expel asylum seekers who have already crossed into the U.S.—or simply not allow them entry onto U.S. soil. Previously, under U.S. law, anyone from anywhere in the world could present themselves at a port of entry and request asylum, beginning a legal process that would play out in American courts to assess the validity of their claim.
But Title 42 has been applied unevenly to different nationalities over time. "Title 42 has created an extremely confusing landscape for migrants and for the public," said Jessica Bolter, an associate policy analyst at the Migration Policy Institute. "It can appear as though it's luck that determines whether or not someone is able to seek asylum or whether they are expelled."That inconsistency at times appears politically motivated. “What we’ve seen in the past year under the Biden administration is that those few people who do get in at the ports of entry are those whom it would be politically damaging not to admit, or those who manage to connect with a lawyer and have some form of vulnerability that allows [CBP] to admit them on an ad hoc basis largely irrelevant to their asylum claim,” said Aaron Reichlin-Melnick, policy counsel at the American Immigration Council. “In this case, that means white Ukrainians who are being prioritized over everyone else, including other white asylum seekers from Russia, but predominantly black and brown asylum seekers who have been waiting for years for a chance to start the asylum process,” Reichlin-Melnick said. “This isn’t a system of humanitarian protection — it’s an arbitrary roll of the die.” Whereas asylum seekers from other parts of the world (primarily from the Northern Triangle of Central America) have mostly stopped presenting themselves at ports of entry knowing that they will be turned away, people fleeing the conflict in Ukraine tend to be less familiar with U.S. border policy and still try to enter through what is essentially the front door: the largest official border crossing.
The result is what appears to be an ad hoc policy by U.S. Customs and Border Protection to allow access to the asylum system to Ukrainians while denying it to Russians, who are fleeing the same conflict, even if they are not its immediate military targets."All of us here who are from Russia are people who came out against Putin and against the war," said Yarina. "That's the reason we are at the border."A CBP spokesperson said only that the agency “is continuing to except particularly vulnerable individuals from Title 42 on a case by case basis,” but did not respond to questions about which criteria were being used to make such exceptions. Yarina, her husband and their children left St. Petersburg after Yarina's husband was arrested for holding an anti-war poster in St. Petersburg. He was released on condition that he report back to the anti-extremism division of the police. Instead, the family left as quickly as possible, eventually catching a flight to Moscow, then Cancun, then a final flight to Tijuana.At first, Ukrainians and Russians were forced to wait at the port of entry together. That's where Poliakova and Yarina met. They immediately formed a strong bond, even though they came from opposing sides of the war. "We're brothers and sisters," Poliakova told VICE World News. Poliakova had already fled Putin once -- she hails from Crimea, and she moved to Kyiv after Putin annexed the Crimean peninsula in 2014. "I know that Russian people, they're not fine with Putin."
But Yarina said the war had done irreparable damage to the relationship between the people of the two nations. "We destroyed their homes," she said. "We killed people. What relationship can there be?"Speaking to Poliakova, Yarina apologized. "Forgive us for not stopping [Putin] sooner."Poliakova and Yarina both spent Sunday night on the cold concrete at the port of entry. CBP officers would periodically come count the number of people who were waiting to plead asylum, asking their nationalities and the number of people in their families. Both Ukrainians and Russians were hopeful they would be allowed to cross.The following morning, Poliakova was allowed entry into the United States. Then more Ukrainians were allowed to cross. Eventually, CBP began allowing Ukrainians immediate access. "They are not waiting in line," said Yarina. "They pass right away."But Russians were told they would not be allowed in at all. "They stopped counting us and approaching us," Yarina said. “We are in a desperate situation.”