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Number of Ukrainian refugees increasing at Tijuana border

Advocates say asylum claims & exemptions not uniformly enforced at border crossings.

SAN DIEGO COUNTY, Calif. — Immigration advocates are seeing a surge of Ukrainian and Russian immigrants at the Tijuana border crossing since the invasion of Ukraine three weeks ago. Some are being allowed in, others not.

There seems to be no rhyme or reason at the San Ysidro border crossing, as to who gets through and who doesn't, according to Erika Pinheiro, an immigration advocate with the group, Al Otro Lado.

“The past week or so we really started seeing the first big wave of people who are fleeing the conflict,” said Pinheiro. “We saw families being turned away. We saw Russians and Ukrainians being admitted, kind of on an ad hoc basis. We saw Russians, Ukrainians and folks from Belarus sleeping outside of the port of entry and waiting days to be admitted.”

Under the current Title 42 immigration policies in the United States, asylum seekers can be turned away indiscriminately because of the pandemic.

Some people are being allowed in under a humanitarian exemption, like a Ukrainian mother and her children, who CBS 8 interviewed last week after they crossed.

“It took about 24 hours for her to be approved and then she was admitted with her three children,” said Pinheiro.

Others have not been so lucky.

“When we see Central American or Black migrants approaching the port of entry, they are told to leave. They are screamed at, they're told that they cannot access asylum at all,” said Pinheiro

Ironically, the Ukrainians being let through on humanitarian parole have less of a chance at being granted asylum than those from other countries, Pinheiro said.

“The United States does not give asylum for generalized conditions or for people fleeing war,” Pinheiro said.

Jewish Family Service runs San Diego’s Rapid Response Network at the border, assisting migrants who are vulnerable.

So far this year, the Rapid Response Network has assisted 453 Ukrainians at the border.  That compares to 878 Ukrainians assisted during all of 2021, according to Kate Clark, the group's Director of Immigration Services.

“Our recently arrived guests from Ukraine tend to be female heads of household with their children.  Our guests have shared that their spouses have stayed behind to fight for Ukraine's continued independence,” Clark said.

Advocates are calling for the immediate repeal of policies that have allowed migrants to be turned away from the border before seeking asylum.

“The repeal of Title 42 and the MPP program are just a basic first steps,” said Pinheiro.

If you would like to volunteer at the Tijuana border by monitoring the Port of Entry or by assisting refugees in need, contact Jewish Family Service or Al Otro Lado.

WATCH RELATED: War in Ukraine | Ukrainians can be considered for asylum despite COVID policy (March 2022)