Nearly 10,000 Ukrainians without permission to enter the U.S. have been processed by border officials in the past two months as thousands of refugees displaced by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine have traveled to Mexico hoping to request refuge in the U.S., according to internal Department of Homeland Security (DHS) data obtained by CBS News.
Between February 1 and April 6, U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) reported encountering 9,926 Ukrainians who lacked legal documentation needed to enter the country, the unpublished agency statistics show. On April 6 alone, 767 Ukrainian migrants were processed by CBP.
The numbers show the dramatic increase in Ukrainians entering U.S. border custody over the past few weeks. In February, CBP officials reported encountering 1,147 undocumented Ukrainians, including 272 migrants along the Mexican border, according to public agency data. Russia’s invasion began on February 24.
Between February 1 and April 6, CBP also reported 41,074 “legal entries” of Ukrainians who had permission to enter the U.S., which can include such visas the U.S. awards to short-term travelers, including tourists, or immigrants allowed to live in the U.S. permanently, the internal agency data show.
Russia’s invasion triggered the largest displacement crisis since World War II, prompting 4.4 million refugees to flee to other European countries in just over two months. While the vast majority of displaced Ukrainians remain in Europe, a growing number has sought to reach the U.S.
On March 24, President Biden vowed to receive up to 100,000 Ukrainians displaced by the war over an undefined time period. But the administration has yet to announce any concrete steps to achieve the ambitious plan and expedite a visa and refugee process that typically takes months and years to complete.
Faced with limited direct pathways to reach the U.S., thousands of Ukrainians have embarked on a days-long trek to Mexico that typically involves several flights to reach the U.S. southern border, where officials have been directed to consider admitting Ukrainians, despite pandemic-era entry restrictions for other migrants.
It’s unclear how many of the 9,926 Ukrainians processed by U.S. border officials were allowed into the country. CBP did not respond to requests to comment on the data and provide additional statistics.
The unprecedented wave of Ukrainians traveling to Mexico in hopes of entering the U.S. is a symptom of a dysfunctional and backlogged immigration system that is not designed to respond to burgeoning refugee crises, especially after numerous Trump-era restrictions and the COVID-19 pandemic, experts said.
“The fact that Ukrainians are traveling to Mexico and trying their luck at the U.S.-Mexico border as the fastest option just shows how slow and clogged up our immigration system is,” said Julia Gelatt, an analyst for the non-partisan Migration Policy Institute. “We don’t really have a rapid response part of our immigration system that can create pathways for people in an emergency situation.”
That broken immigration system is on full display in Tijuana, Mexico, where a group of volunteers from Slavic churches in the U.S. has created an ad hoc process to enroll Ukrainians on a list so they can wait their turn to present themselves to U.S. officials at the San Ysidro border crossing in Southern California.
Once their numbers come up, families and adults from Ukraine are generally allowed to enter the U.S. after some processing and granted one year of humanitarian parole, which allows them to work and live in the U.S. legally. On March 11, U.S. border officials were directed to consider exempting Ukrainians from Title 42, the pandemic-era rule that has blocked many Latin American migrants from seeking asylum.
A smaller number of unaccompanied Ukrainian children are also seeking entry at the San Ysidro crossing, according to a U.S. official and lawyers in Tijuana, but they are being transferred to government shelters that typically house Central American migrant children, as required by a 2008 anti-trafficking law.
Olya Krasnykh, one of the U.S. volunteers helping Ukrainians arriving in Tijuana, said the waiting list is designed to ensure the processing of Ukrainians is somewhat orderly, since U.S. border authorities limit the number of individuals who can be admitted to a few hundred per day.
But Krasnykh said the bulk of this work should be done by governments — not a loose team of volunteers. Mexican officials in Tijuana have agreed to provide temporary housing to Ukrainians, but Krasnykh said the makeshift shelters, including a recreation center’s gym, are quickly running out of space.
“The situation really needs to change because the numbers are staggering, and we’re at capacity,” Krasnykh, a California resident, told CBS News. “Many of us haven’t been sleeping at all. It’s just not sustainable.”
The internal CBP statistics also show an increase in Russians entering U.S. border custody, with the agency reporting processing 5,207 migrants from Russia since February 1. Just over 2,000 Russians entered CBP custody in February, including 769 migrants along the Mexican border, according to agency figures.
Unlike the U.S., Mexico does not have visa requirements for Ukrainian travelers. According to Ukrainian families and volunteers, most Ukrainians are flying into Cancún or Mexico City from Europe and then boarding a second flight to Tijuana.
Natalia Kozlov, 24, said she arrived in Tijuana on the night of April 6 alongside her husband Mihail, 23, and their 7-month-old baby after a two-day journey from Warsaw that included stops in Paris and Cancun.
The young couple said they had been living in Poland since last fall, when they fled the conflict between Russian-backed separatists and the Ukrainian government in the eastern region of Donetsk. But the couple said they had no family members in Poland, and that returning to Ukraine after the war broke out was not an option.
After learning that U.S. border officials were allowing displaced Ukrainians to enter the country, Natalia and Mihail said they arranged the trip to Mexico with the help of Natalia’s family members, who live in Colorado. They said they could not come directly to the U.S. because they don’t have visas.
Natalia said the U.S. should establish an easier immigration process for Ukrainians with family members in the U.S. so that desperate families don’t have to take the journey to Mexico, which she noted has been difficult for her baby.
“That would be a big relief, especially for families with children,” Natalia said through an interpreter on Friday. “If there was a more straightforward way to get to the U.S, that would just alleviate a lot of stress.”
But legal immigration pathways for Ukrainians looking to enter the U.S. quickly remain scarce.
Visa seekers, for example, face long wait times due to limited processing capacity at U.S. consulates and a backlog of applications that was exacerbated by the pandemic. They also may not be able to prove eligibility for temporary visas, since those require proof that applicants intend to return to their home country.
The refugee process, which allows those fleeing persecution to move to the U.S., currently takes between 18 to 24 months to complete because of interviews, security checks and medical exams. The U.S. has also said Ukrainians need to be in third countries “where they cannot be protected” to qualify for resettlement.
In March, the U.S. resettled just 12 Ukrainian refugees, who were all likely in the resettlement pipeline before the Russian invasion, State Department figures show.
During an interview with “CBS Evening News” anchor and managing editor Norah O’Donnell last week, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said the U.S. is “exploring other avenues so that [Ukrainians] do not need to fly to yet another country and seek relief.” But he noted “it is not a fast process” and that he understood why Ukrainians are flying to Mexico.
“We are seeing Ukrainians in desperation. We have seen the horrific images from Ukraine,” Mayorkas said, calling Russia’s invasion “inhumane.”
Meanwhile, in Tijuana, Natalia and her family had to cut short their interview on Friday. Their number on the waiting list to show up at the U.S. port of entry — 2,227 — had come up.
Asked how she would feel if allowed to enter the U.S., Natalia replied in English, “Very, very happy.”