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Dozens of Ukrainians are stranded in Tijuana after the United States halted land border processing of those fleeing Russia’s invasion of their country.

The United States launched a program called Uniting for Ukraine on Monday to allow Ukrainians fleeing the war to travel directly to the U.S. from Europe after applying online. At the same time, federal officials stopped processing them through land borders — including the San Diego-Tijuana border.

“Ukrainians should not travel to Mexico to pursue entry into the United States,” the Biden administration said in a statement Thursday announcing the change. “Following the launch of Uniting for Ukraine, Ukrainians who present at land U.S. ports of entry without a valid visa or without pre-authorization to travel to the United States through Uniting for Ukraine will be denied entry and referred to apply through this program.”

In recent weeks, Customs and Border Protection had been fast-tracking entry for fleeing Ukrainians and giving them one-year humanitarian permits to be in the United States, and volunteers in Tijuana had developed a system to coordinate those entries with CBP at the San Ysidro Port of Entry.

The swift change took many Ukrainians who had already left their country by surprise, among them a group that arrived Monday morning at the Tijuana airport.

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Customs and Border Protection did not respond to a request for comment on the situation.

On Monday, volunteers transported the group that arrived at the airport to the Benito Juárez sports complex in Zona Norte that for weeks served as a shelter for Ukrainians waiting to cross to the United States.

More Ukrainians arrive at the Benito Juarez Sports Complex

After Ukrainians were bused from the Benito Juarez Sports Complex to the PedWest border crossing to meet the Biden administration’s deadline for processing to the United States, an additional 25 people arrived at the shelter and found themselves stranded.

(Carlos Moreno/For The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Among them was a woman who identified herself as Tania and approached a group of reporters to express her frustration.

“We have been traveling four days. We are very tired, and we can’t pass forward. Government, please help me,” the woman said, struggling to convey her feelings in English and directing her request to the United States. “We are very tired, very. My family in America. They are waiting me.”

In the shelter where at one time more than 1,000 people slept, a small group of about 25 Ukrainians was visible on Monday. Spaces that a few days ago held camping tents were empty. The patio area where children had recently played with their families was similarly vacant.

But with the continuing arrival of Ukrainians, even in dramatically smaller numbers, volunteers could be seen entering the shelter with sleeping mats.

By Tuesday afternoon, Vlad Fedoryshyn, a volunteer and organizer at the shelter, said that he and the remaining volunteers were supporting 82 Ukrainians who had arrived in Tijuana since the policy change.

Fedoryshyn said that volunteers were maintaining the site until May 5 to explain the situation to the new arrivals and support them while they figure out what to do next.

“We have right now at the airport people who are still coming,” he said. “We’re explaining that the border is closed, but they said, ‘We don’t have any other option. We will try.’”

The new arrivals have two options, Fedoryshyn said — return to Europe and send their applications to travel directly to the United States, or fly back to Mexico City and try to get help from the Ukrainian embassy.

A shelter for Ukrainians has already opened in Mexico City, he added.

He said that because the announcement from the United States government came only a few days ahead of the change, the situation was difficult for families already in transit.

He recalled that even on Sunday more people had arrived at the Tijuana airport than CBP initially said its officers could process before the end.

“They started crying. It was a really hard situation there,” he said. “I was crying with them as well.”

Eventually he was able to negotiate with CBP to take everyone who had arrived on Sunday.

“When we started telling people, ‘Do not come because they’re going to close the border,’ they said, ‘We’re already on the way,” Fedoryshyn said. “If they would announce us for a week at least, we would stop them in Europe. I know there will be more families who is coming.”

Montserrat Caballero, mayor of Tijuana, confirmed on Monday that the sports complex turned shelter, which is owned by the city, would stay open for a few more days.

“Because of empathy for these people who were already on the way and are going to be stranded, the shelter will be open for some days to support their needs,” she said in Spanish.

Fedoryshyn estimated that in the final 24 hours before the border closed, about 800 Ukrainians crossed from Tijuana to San Diego.

According to data that CBP has given to civil organizations, since March 14, about 18,000 Ukrainians have crossed at the San Ysidro Port of Entry, news organization EFE reported. A little over 3,000 were processed in March in the San Diego area, according to the latest published data from CBP. April data is not yet available.

Source: This post first appeared on sandiegouniontribune.com

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