More Russian migrants are traveling through Mexico to seek asylum in the U.S., driven in part by an expanding U.S. government effort to allow more asylum seekers to cross the border legally.
About 12,500 Russians entered the U.S. through ports of entry with Mexico between October, the start of the government’s budget year, and December. Most are expected to ask for asylum once they settle in the U.S., often citing government crackdowns since the start of the war in Ukraine and the mobilization announced in September to draft more troops.
About 5,000 Russians crossed through U.S. ports of entry during the same period a year ago.
Though the Biden administration hasn’t changed policies about dealing with Russian migrants, the government has expanded its use of preset appointments for migrants from any country to walk to a port of entry and request exemption from a public-health law known as Title 42, which has generally barred asylum seekers from legal border crossings since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic. Many Russians have taken notice and advantage, according to attorneys and advocates.
“Russians are extremely savvy in terms of figuring out the ways to manage the system,” said Tatyana Edwards-Behar, a San Diego-based immigration lawyer who herself emigrated from Russia decades ago. “They have access to information. And they actively disseminate information.”
White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said in September that the administration welcomed Russian asylum seekers and that their requests would be reviewed on a case-by-case basis.
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Since October, the Biden administration has processed about 84,000 people through legal border crossings, most under exemptions to Title 42. During the same period a year ago, the agency allowed about 22,000 people through the ports, including nearly 5,000 Russians.
Separately, Border Patrol agents have arrested about 4,700 Russian migrants who have crossed the border illegally since October. During the same period a year ago, agents reported 415 such arrests.
Until recently, securing an appointment to request asylum at a port of entry required help from aid groups that screen migrants and make arrangements for the most at-risk people to cross the border. An app launched in mid-January is intended to allow migrants to communicate directly with border officials but has been plagued by technical glitches, according to immigration advocates and lawyers.
Ms. Edwards-Behar said several aid groups intending to help Russians launched last year. On her Telegram messaging page, dubbed “Better Call Tatyana,” and in phone consultations, she said she warns people to be wary of criminals who charge thousands of dollars for help securing the free appointment, sometimes fraudulently.
Anna Mashinskaia, 22 years old, and her boyfriend, Aleksei Leshchenko, 52, are among those who crossed the border legally into San Diego in January. They said they fled Russia in December after being detained during a rally to protest Russian President Vladimir Putin and the war in Ukraine.
The two teachers made quick plans to head to the U.S. via Mexico after reading stories online of others successfully making the trip. They flew to Cancún via Istanbul, then entered the U.S. at the San Diego port of entry in January. Flying directly into the U.S. isn’t possible without a visa.
“All of our conscious lives we have supported democracy in Russia and we were active participants in the protest movement,” Ms. Mashinskaia said from the pair’s new home in Simi Valley, just north of Los Angeles. “We realized we were facing imprisonment for our antiwar activities. We left Russia after that.”
When Russian migrants reach the U.S.-Mexico border, they often have to wait weeks to secure an appointment to enter the country. Andrey Arrakis and his husband, Roman Krupin, fled from Russia to Cancún in late November and spent more than five weeks in the Mexican city of Matamoros before entering Brownsville, Texas. Mr. Arrakis, who now lives in New York with Mr. Krupin, declined to say how they got their appointment.
Ms. Mashinskaia and Mr. Leshchenko said that after arriving in Cancún they met a private group offering help crossing the border and paid about $7,000. But when the help never materialized, they said, they made their own arrangements to travel to Tijuana, where a nongovernmental agency secured them an appointment.
Both couples have been given dates to show up in immigration court. They plan to apply for asylum and work permits.
The wait for a ruling in their cases could take years amid a backlog of more than two million cases pending in federal immigration court.