Ukrainian refugees make last-ditch attempt to enter the US from Tijuana

Ukrainian refugees make last-ditch attempt to enter the US from Tijuana

Hundreds of Ukrainian refugees now gathered in Mexico face a deadline of midnight on Sunday to safely cross into the US, before the Biden administration closes the border to them and forces them to apply for asylum online from Europe.

Under a new program, the US says it will streamline refugee applications for Ukrainians and others fleeing the fighting, but will no longer routinely grant entry to those who show up at the U.S.-Mexico border seeking asylum.

Meanwhile, volunteers in Tijuana tell that they expect a chaotic situation on Sunday, with Ukrainians arriving on flights booked well in advance and rushing to make it to the border before it is sealed at midnight.

‘I’m pretty sure there’s going to be a lot of crying and sad faces, because many people won’t cross,’ one volunteer helping refugees said in an interview.

Co-Founder of United For Ukraine Anastasia Bolo told that the last bus for the border will leave at 8pm, and that refugees flying into the city later in the day will likely end up stuck in Mexico.

‘Of course everybody is upset because people bought tickets in advance,’ she said.

The Biden administration only announced the new program and border deadline on Thursday, throwing transit plans for many refugees into chaos.

Bolo said that her group will still be working from its base in Mexico City to help Ukrainians who don’t make it to Tijuana before the border closes.

She said that her group is urging Ukrainians to remain in Europe and apply for refugee status online through the new program, which she says has the benefit of regularizing the process.

Thousands of Ukrainian refugees have been using the southern border to seek asylum in the US since the invasion ordered by Russian President Vladimir Putin began almost two months ago.

The US says it expects to admit up to 100,000 refugees from Ukraine and about 15,000 have come since the February 24 invasion, mostly through Mexico.

Starting Monday, that will no longer be an option except in extreme circumstances, officials said.

‘This program will be fast, it will be streamlined and it will ensure the United States honors its commitment to go through the people Ukraine and need not go through our southern border,’ President Joe Biden said in remarks on Thursday.

Without direction from the White House on how to enter the U.S., many Ukrainians figured it out for themselves: arriving via tourist visa, or flying to Mexico to enter via the Southern border.

Many, if not most of those at the southern border, have been released into the United States via humanitarian parole, which allows people to stay temporarily.

However, once the ‘Uniting for Ukraine’ program begins on April 25th, any Ukrainian trying to enter via the U.S.-Mexico  border will be refused under Title 42, the public health order that the Department of Homeland Security uses to turn away refugees, Biden administrational officials said.

The Biden administration has been exempting Ukrainian refugees, but will do so no longer under the new rules.

‘As of April 25, Ukrainians who do seek to enter the United States at a land border without a visa or without completing the ‘Uniting for Ukraine’ process may be refused entry under our existing laws,’ a DHS official said on a briefing call with reporters on Thursday morning ahead of Biden remarks.

Complicating matters, the use of Title 42, which has been used to quickly turn away more than 1.7 million people, is set to end May 23.

A swath of Republicans and some Democrats have urged Biden to delay the lifting of Title 42 over fears it will cause a surge in migrant crossings at the southern border.

Ukrainian refugees arrive at Tijuana Airport on Saturday as they race to cross the US border

We are proud to deliver on President Biden´s commitment to welcome 100,000 Ukrainians and others fleeing Russian aggression to the United States,’ Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro N. Mayorkas said in a statement announcing the new program.

‘The Ukrainian people continue to suffer immense tragedy and loss as a result of Putin´s unprovoked and unjustified attack on their country.’

U.S. officials say a majority of the Ukrainian refugees want to stay in Eastern Europe because many hope eventually to return home.

Advocates have said the U.S. should take more than 100,000 refugees and further expedite the process.

Public support doesn’t seem to be an issue. An Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research poll shows 65 percent of Americans favor accepting Ukrainian refugees into the U.S., while 15 percent oppose. An additional 19 percent say they neither favor nor oppose.

To qualify for admission to the U.S. under the new program, officially known as Uniting for Ukraine, people must have been in Ukraine as of Feb. 11; have a sponsor, which could be family or an organization; meet vaccination and other public health requirements; and pass background checks.

Typically, people would start applications in their home country, but that’s no longer possible because the U.S. pulled its diplomats from Ukraine. The State Department will expand resettlement operations in Eastern Europe under the new program to compensate.

Most of those admitted will receive two years of residence and authorization to work in the United States under what´s known as humanitarian parole.

Those coming to the U.S. through the formal refugee process, including members of religious minority groups, will receive permanent legal residency.

A downside of the new effort is that humanitarian parole generally does not include temporary housing support and other benefits provided through the traditional refugee program, which is only slowly recovering from Trump-era cutbacks, said Krish O´Mara Vignarajah, president of Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service.

Nevertheless, Vignarajah and other refugee advocates welcomed the announcement. ‘Families desperately seeking to bring their loved ones directly to safety in the U.S. have a glimmer of hope, where there once was exceedingly little,’ she said.

Refugees will encounter a streamlined process in Europe, but they won´t be able to complete it in Mexico, senior administration officials told reporters, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss the program before the public announcement.

Instead, Ukrainians who show up at the border will generally be turned away and told to apply for entry under the new program.

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