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TIJUANA, Mexico — Hundreds of Ukrainian refugees arriving daily have a message for family and friends in Europe: the fastest route to settle in the United States is booking a flight to Mexico.
A loose volunteer coalition, largely from Slavic churches in the western United States, is guiding hundreds of refugees daily from the airport in the Mexican border city of Tijuana to hotels, churches and shelters, where they wait two to four days for U.S officials to admit them on humanitarian parole. In less than two weeks, volunteers worked with U.S. and Mexican officials to build a remarkably efficient and expanding network to provide food, security, transportation, and shelter.
The volunteers, who wear blue and yellow badges to represent the Ukrainian flag but have no group name or leader, started a waiting list on notepads and later switched to a mobile app normally used to track church attendance. Ukrainians are told to report to a U.S. border crossing as their numbers approach, a system that organizers liken to waiting for a restaurant table.
“We feel so lucky, so blessed,” said Tatiana Bondarenko, who traveled through Moldova, Romania, Austria and Mexico before arriving Tuesday in San Diego with her husband and children, ages 8, 12, and 15. Her final destination was Sacramento, California, to live with her mother, who she hadn’t seen in 15 years.
Another Ukrainian family posed nearby for photos under a U.S. Customs and Border Protection sign at San Diego’s San Ysidro port of entry, the busiest crossing between the U.S. and Mexico. Volunteers under a blue canopy offered snacks while refugees waited for family to pick them up or for buses to take them to a nearby church.
At the Tijuana airport, weary travelers who enter Mexico as tourists in Mexico City or Cancun are directed to a makeshift lounge in the terminal with a sign in black marker that reads, “Only for Ukrainian Refugees.” It is the only place to register to enter the U.S.
About 200 to 300 Ukrainians were being admitted daily at the San Ysidro crossing this week, with hundreds more arriving in Tijuana, according to volunteers who manage the waiting list. There were 973 families or single adults waiting on Tuesday.
U.S officials told volunteers they aim to admit about 550 Ukrainians daily as processing moves to a nearby crossing that is temporarily closed to the public. CBP didn’t provide numbers in response to questions about operations and plans, saying only that it has expanded facilities in San Diego to deal with humanitarian cases.
“We realized we had a problem that the government wasn’t going to solve, so we solved it,” said Phil Metzger, pastor of Calvary Church in the San Diego suburb of Chula Vista, where about 75 members host Ukrainian families and another 100 refugees sleep on air mattresses and pews.
Metzger, whose pastoral work has taken him to Ukraine and Hungary, calls the operation “duct tape and glue” but refugees prefer it to overwhelmed European countries, where millions of Ukrainians have settled.
The Biden administration has said it will accept up to 100,000 Ukrainians but Mexico is the only route producing big numbers. Appointments at U.S. consulates in Europe are scarce, and refugee resettlement takes time.
The administration set a refugee resettlement cap of 125,000 in the 12-month period that ends Sept. 30 but accepted only 8,758 by March 31, including 704 Ukrainians. In the previous year, it capped refugee resettlement at 62,500 but took only 11,411, including 803 Ukrainians.
The administration paroled more than 76,000 Afghans through U.S. airports in response to the departure of American troops last year, but nothing similar is afoot for Ukrainians.
Oksana Dugnyk, 36, hesitated to leave her home in Bucha but acquiesced to her husband’s wishes before Russian troops invaded the town and left behind streets strewn with corpses. The couple worried about violence in Mexico with three young children but the robust presence of volunteers in Tijuana reassured them and a friend in Ohio agreed to host them.
“So far, so good,” Dugnyk said a day after arriving at a Tijuana gymnasium that the city government opened for about 400 Ukrainians to sleep on a basketball court. “We have food. We have a place to stay. We hope everything will be fine.”
Alerted by text message or social media, Ukrainians are summoned to a grassy hill and bus shelter near the border crossing hours before their numbers are called. The city government opened the bus shelter to protect Ukrainians from torrential rain.
Angelina Mykyta, a college student in Kyiv, acknowledged nerves as her number neared. She fled to Warsaw after the invasion but decided to take a chance on the United States because she wanted to settle with a pastor she knows in Kalispell, Montana.
“I think we’ll be OK,” she said while waiting to be escorted from the camp of hundreds of Ukrainians to their final stop in Mexico — a small area with a few dozen folding chairs within earshot of U.S. officials. Some refuse to drink at the final stop, fearing they will have to go to the bathroom and miss their turn.
Lulls end when CBP officers approach: “We need a family.” “Give me three more.” “Singles, we need singles.” A volunteer ensures orderly movement.
The arrival of Ukrainians comes as the Biden administration prepares for much larger numbers when pandemic-related asylum limits for all nationalities end May 23. Since March 2020, the U.S. has used Title 42 authority, named for a 1944 public health law, to suspend rights to seek asylum under U.S. law and international treaty.
Metzger, the Chula Vista pastor, said his church cannot long continue its 24-hour-a-day pace helping refugees, and suspects U.S. authorities will not adopt what volunteers have done.
“If you make something go smooth, then everybody’s going to come,” he said. “We’re making it so easy. Eventually I’m sure they’ll say, ‘No, we’re done.’”