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'Humanitarian parole' for Ukrainians highlights racial bias in U.S. immigration policy

'There’s no way you can look at what’s happening right now and not see it on racial lines,' one migrant advocate said

Nearly 600 Ukrainian citizens arrived at the San Ysidro border crossing in Tijuana, Mexico, on Thursday, joining the ranks of thousands of others seeking to cross into the United States.

While the border policy known as Title 42 prevents them from applying for asylum, Ukrainian citizens have been allowed to enter the United States by means of a temporary protection mechanism called humanitarian parole. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced Friday that the policy would official come to an end on May 23.

U.S. and Mexican authorities are coordinating with the help of dozens of Ukrainian-speaking volunteers to organize groups of around 20 Ukrainian citizens to cross at a time. A Tijuana police officer helping coordinate said they are processing two to three groups per hour. 

Many of those seeking to enter the United States are staying in hotels in Tijuana while they wait for their chance to cross, but hundreds gathered at a bus stop near the border gate on Thursday, filling sidewalks and an adjacent green space with tents and sleeping bags. Many were families of men, women and children.

Enrique Lucero, director of migrant services for the Tijuana municipal government, said that the city had offered to house the parole seekers in temporary shelters, but that the offer was broadly declined. 

“All of them are going to cross, so they don’t want to be put into shelters,” said Lucero.

But while they are allowed to cross the border within hours or days of arriving in Tijuana, asylum seekers from Central America, Mexico, Haiti and other countries have been waiting for months or even years for their chance to do so as a result of Title 42. Foreign nationals have the right to request asylum under U.S. immigration law.

These migrants understand that Ukrainians have a legitimate claim to protection in the United States, but they can’t help but feel discriminated against by U.S. border policy.

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“Folks who have been waiting for months or years feel the unfairness of the situation acutely,” said Erika Pinheiro, litigation and policy director of the human rights organization Al Otro Lado (On the Other Side). 

The migrants in Tijuana shelters who spoke to Courthouse News did not express anger or resentment toward those fleeing Russia’s war in Ukraine, but many did decry the U.S. immigration system as racially discriminatory.

“If they’re letting Ukrainians cross, they should let us cross, too,” said Reina Ávila López, 32, who has been waiting over three months in the Ágape migrant shelter with her 5-year-old daughter Alejandra. 

They share this crowded space with 500 other migrants, mostly from Mexico and Central America. The three buildings on the 19,000-square-foot property are all full, and many sleep in tents set up in the courtyard. 

“They are fleeing just like us, even though they’re fleeing war. We’re fleeing a gang war. The threat to our lives is the same,” said Ávila.

Viridiana Morales, a single mother of two from the Mexican state of Michoacán has been in the shelter for four months with her mother and daughters. 

“I feel relieved for the Ukrainians because they’re going through a really difficult situation in their country. But us Mexicans also need the same support they’re receiving,” said Morales, 32. 

She described a situation in her home state in which “you can’t even report a crime because the criminal groups work in collusion with the police. You know that if you report a crime, you won’t last very long.”

The choice to leave was not a voluntary one. “We were forced to come here, to leave our homes, the kids’ schools, everything.”

Indeed, the situations they are fleeing, while different in kind from that in Ukraine, ultimately present the same threat to their safety. 

Vlad, a 28-year-old oil engineer, fled the eastern Ukrainian city of Kharkiv — one of the hardest hit by Russian forces — with his wife Nina, 25. They preferred not to give their last name.

“There were bombs every hour — boom, boom, boom. They destroyed the city. They bombed schools, they bombed hospitals, they bombed villages with people who had never taken up arms or anything,” he said. 

Back at Ágape, Mayra Peña, 28, described scenes of a different kind of war: “There are shootings in Michoacán at all hours of the day. All day and night, everywhere. At times, they don’t even let food deliveries into the town. Sometimes you can’t even leave or enter your own town.”

Peña and three dozen members of her extended family fled Michoacán seven months ago after criminal groups kidnapped several of their relatives, entered her mother’s home with guns to threaten them and finally took their avocado farm from them. Her father died in the shelter in November due to complications from diabetes.

Loli Parisien, a 37-year-old Haitian migrant and father of one who has been in Tijuana for three months, did not go so far as to call U.S. immigration policy racist, but did question the decision of who gets to cross and who doesn’t. 

“Why are they allowed to enter, but not us?” he asked while observing the Ukrainian encampment set up near the San Ysidro crossing.

Migrant advocates from the United States and Mexico, however, did not shy away from decrying racial bias in U.S. immigration policy. 

“There’s no way you can look at what’s happening right now and not see it on racial lines,” said Blaine Bookey, legal director at the Center for Gender and Refugee Studies. 

“Ukrainians absolutely deserve to come to the border and seek asylum, but this highlights the fact that Title 42 is a policy choice, not one based on public health, and shows that when the administration wants to welcome refugees, it knows how to do it. It just underscores the absurdity of this policy at this point,” said Bookey.

It also reveals the U.S. government’s capacity to process several thousands of asylum-seeking families and children when it wants to, she added. “Any claims to the contrary have no basis in fact.”

No one interviewed by Courthouse News expressed animosity toward any other nationality, but Ukrainians waiting to enter the United States did seem to lack awareness of the realities of Latin American people displaced by the drug war.

“Ukraine also had bandits, criminals, before the war,” said Sergii, 29, who also fled Kharkiv and declined to give his last name. “Every country has crime.”

Anastasia Polo, a Ukrainian singer and activist who has lived in the United States for 14 years, has been volunteering for over a week, providing translation and transportation services to newly arrived parole seekers. Volunteers came after reports of Ukrainians being extorted by Tijuana taxi drivers who charged as much as $400 for the 20-minute cab ride to the border from the airport. 

“I totally understand how those migrants feel, because if they have issues in their home countries, like war, then yes, they need to cross the border,” she said. “If they just want to go to the U.S., that’s another thing.”

Andrea Rincón, director of the humanitarian group Border Youth Collective, expressed hope that this situation will turn into a broader movement to demand that the U.S. government grant all asylum seekers their rights guaranteed under the law.

“It’s not about who’s more of a victim, who suffers more,” she said, adding that through mutual understanding, she hoped that “we can start a movement in which Ukrainians who have received humanitarian parole become advocates” for Latin Americans fleeing a different kind of war.

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Paul Ingram/TucsonSentinel.com

Dozens of asylum seekers protested Title 42 during a demonstration in Nogales, Sonora in November 2021, just beyond the Dennis DeConcini Port of Entry. This included a young boy who carried a sign that read 'Somos Seres,' or 'we are human beings.'

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