On Dec. 12, the driver of a car carrying migrants from Ukraine and Tajikistan disobeyed an officer’s requests to provide id and smacked the officer’s hand with a car door mirror as he accelerated past him. This is merely one case out of more than 8,600 Russians who have crossed the Mexico border illegally into the US just in the recent months.
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It was one of the most horrifying experiences of Maksim Derzhko’s life. Historically a critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin, he travelled with his 14-year-old daughter from Vladivostok to Tijuana, Mexico, in a car with seven other Russians. All that stood between them and requesting refuge in the United States was a US officer stuck in traffic as cars approached screening booths, reports abc News.
The emotions are “hard to put into words,” he says. “It’s fear. The unknown. It’s really hard. We had no choice.”
The bet paid off. Derzkho was released after a day in custody to claim refuge with his daughter in America, joining thousands of other Russians who have recently pursued the very same road.
Even before Russia’s special military operation of Ukraine prompted the US and its partners to impose harsh sanctions, the US had seen an uptick in Russian asylum applications. From August through January, upwards of 8,600 Russians sought asylum on the US-Mexico border, a 35-fold increase over the 249 who sought asylum the previous year. In San Diego, nine out of ten people used legal border crossings.
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Migrants from other former Soviet countries travel the same path in smaller numbers, however some officials are expecting more Ukrainians in the near future. Following two rejections, the US allowed a Ukrainian family of four on humanitarian considerations on Thursday.
In contrast to the United States, Russians do not require visas to enter Mexico. Several travel from Moscow to Cancun, Mexico, as tourists, and then travel to Tijuana, whereupon they collect money to purchase or rent cars. As they reach San Diego’s San Ysidro border crossing, where around 30,000 cars enter the US each day, adrenaline surges.
Before reaching the inspection stations, 24 traffic lanes are diverted to a border indicated by a few rows of yellow reflector bumps similar to those used to separate highway lanes. The bumps are separated from the inspection stations by a buffer zone.
Migrants only need to get to the buffer zone to seek asylum in the United States. However, officials posted on the Mexican side of the divide attempt to stop them by looking into vehicles, beckoning motorists to display travel documents, and halting suspicious vehicles.
In an interview at his home in Los Angeles, Derzhko, who crossed in August, said, “It was a very scary moment for all of us to experience. The children with us, everyone was very worried, very much.”
On social media and texting applications, Russians share travel advice. One anonymous man described his journey from Moscow’s Red Square to a hotel room in San Diego, which included stops in Cancun and Mexico City. In a YouTube video, he admits to being nervous after purchasing a used automobile in Tijuana, but subsequently in San Diego, he claims that just about everything proceeded smoothly — despite two days in US detention — and that others contemplating the trip need not be concerned.
Even though President Joe Biden has maintained extensive Trump-era asylum restrictions, Russians are practically guaranteed a chance at refuge once they reach U.S. territory. Border officials have the authority to refuse migrants the opportunity to seek refuge on the basis that they may transmit COVID-19. However, cost, logistics, and strained diplomatic relations make it very hard to send people of some nationalities home.
Russians and other former Soviet republic residents prefer to drive through official crossings rather than attempting illicit crossings in deserts and mountains. According to Chad Plantz, special agent in charge of Homeland Security Investigations in San Diego, they don’t usually hire smugglers, but “a facilitator” might help arrange trips.
Although Moscow to Cancun is the most popular route, Plantz added that some Russians fly from Amsterdam or Paris to Mexico City and then to Tijuana.
It has resulted in a number of tense encounters.
On Dec. 12, a 29-year-old Russian male sped after past the reflector bumps at San Ysidro and jammed on the brakes, prompting a sedan carrying six Russian asylum-seekers to collide with him from rear. According to CBP, who claims the event is under review, an officer fired four shots, but no one was harmed.
When the SUV driver saw an opportunity between lanes, he sped up, according to his attorney, Martin Molina, who testified before a judge earlier this month. Eleven other Russians were in the SUV, including the man’s wife, 5-year-old daughter, and 1-year-old son. “Asylum!” passengers cried as they raised their hands.
“All that he saw were the bright lights of San Ysidro,” Molina said. “He wanted to get there.”
After approximately three months in prison, the judge granted the driver’s release. The Associated Press is not naming him at the insistence of Molina, who said his client was concerned that his safety might be compromised if he was identified. The man, who condemned Russian participation in Chechnya, wanted to seek asylum in Brooklyn, New York, with his family.
Other events, according to Plantz, have prompted security concerns. According to court documents, on Dec. 12, the driver of a car carrying migrants from Ukraine and Tajikistan disobeyed an officer’s requests to provide id and smacked the officer’s hand with a car door mirror as he accelerated past him.
“They’re probably a little disoriented themselves, not sure exactly what they’re doing, but they are failing to yield, hitting the gas, blowing through,” Plantz said.
A federal court in San Diego determined that detaining asylum seekers is unlawful, but he did not offer explicit directions, permitting officials to retain their tactics. Erika Pinheiro, the litigation and policy director for Al Otro Lado, an advocacy organization that sued over asylum limits at border crossings, claimed the US and Mexican governments work together to deter migrants from entering the buffer zone.
The increase in arrivals may be traced back to the arrest of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny the year before, according to Yuliya Pashkova, a San Diego lawyer who defends Russian asylum seekers. Putin critics, gay individuals, Muslims, and company owners who have been blackmailed by officials are among those seeking asylum.
“When they think of America, they think of freedom, democracy and, frankly, a good economic situation,” she said.