Thirty-five Russian asylum seekers were secretly allowed entry into the United States from Mexico following their escape from the Kremlin, despite many other asylum seekers being forced to wait or having their attempts at asylum rejected.

According to a report by Vice, which first broke the story, the 35 Russian asylum seekers spent about a week in Mexico and were then transported to a portion of the border where they would not be seen. The crossing reportedly happened on March 20. At predawn, they were handed over by the Mexican immigration team to the US Customs and Border Protection. Specifically, they crossed at a border checkpoint known as “El Chaparral,” which had been closed for months.

The group was allegedly composed of Russians fleeing from their home as they opposed the war of Putin in Ukraine. Fearing persecution from their government, they fled to Mexico and camped there, waiting for the US to begin their process of applications for asylum. They had reportedly slept on the sidewalk, folding chairs and donated blankets a few feet away from the border itself.

Before entering the US, a Russian-speaking individual had claimed and posed to be an American diplomat who offered the 35 Russian asylum seekers a path to seek asylum in the US. According to Vice, they would be allowed entry to the US, but only if they broke up their encampment at the Tijuana-San Diego border crossing. They were wary of the deal but took it anyway as it was their only choice.

The US Consulate in Tijuana allegedly brokered this secret deal, which bypassed Title 42, a sweeping border restriction policy enacted by former President Donald Trump. This specific policy was responsible for the quick deportation of thousands of migrants out of the US in two years.

After the deal was agreed upon, the Russians packed up and were transported to a hotel. Following up on the deal, they were picked up from the hotel and transported to a pedestrian border checkpoint known as “El Chaparral,” which was closed to the public. The facility was mainly used for processing deportees to return individuals to Mexico. After spending about two days in the CBP’s custody, they were released into San Diego with the instructions to appear before the immigration court. A number of Russian adults were also transferred to immigration detention centers in the southern US, with their ultimate fates left to be unknown.

A math teacher from Moscow named Irina, one of the Russians who protested the war and was subsequently arrested said that she was grateful to be allowed to seek asylum in the US. However, she also described the process as very “arbitrary” and was like “Russian roulette” as it was unpredictable.

“You don’t know the steps along the way. You approach the border without knowing what is going to happen. You reach the border, but you don’t know if the immigration officer will let you through. Then, when you cross, you are detained, but you don’t know for how long or why,” Irina explained.

The encampment was allegedly comprised of some 36 adults, adolescents, and children who waited for asylum at the San Ysidro Port of Entry. Reports also surfaced that both Ukrainians and Russians were denied entry to the States. However, it was also reported that Ukrainians were eventually allowed into the US.

The encampment of Russian asylum seekers at the Tijuana-San Diego border crossing (David Noriega). Source:
The encampment of Russian asylum seekers at the Tijuana-San Diego border crossing (David Noriega (@drnoriega)|Twitter)

Katya Yarina, a 38-year-old woman who fled St. Petersburg with her husband and two children after facing government persecution as they protested the war, was told that “they would not let Russians and Belarusians through at all.”

This seems to have changed in some form. According to Policy Counsel at the American Immigration Council, Aaron Reichlin-Melnick, the selection for who gets to seek asylum in the US is inconsistent and may be politically motivated.

“What we’ve seen in the past year under the Biden administration is that those few people who do get in at the ports of entry are those whom it would be politically damaging not to admit or those who manage to connect with a lawyer and have some form of vulnerability that allows [CBP] to admit them on an ad hoc basis largely irrelevant to their asylum claim,” he explained to Vice.

“This isn’t a system of humanitarian protection — it’s an arbitrary roll of the die,” he continued.

In response to the secret deal, the Department of Homeland Security, through its spokesperson, said that they continue to implement Title 42 and that they had granted exceptions to vulnerable people of all nationalities on a case-by-case basis for humanitarian reasons.

The State Department, while not commenting on the secret deal, did say that the US and Mexico continue to “cooperate closely on a wide range of issues, including migration.”

What is Title 42?

Title 42 is a World War II public health law that stipulates that the US, under the authority of the president and the then-Surgeon General, could prohibit in whole or in part “the introduction of persons and property from such countries or places as he shall designate in order to avert such danger,” whenever the country determines that a communicable disease is able to enter the US.

The policy was enacted during the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic when Trump announced that the Centers for Disease and Control Prevention had decided to exercise Title 42 of the US Code to “prevent the transmission of the virus coming through both the northern and the southern border.”

Former Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Director Robert Redfield authorized US border officials to deport migrants using the policy which they stated was to control the spread of COVID-19 within US borders and protect US agents from the virus.

While Biden was under pressure from his own party to discontinue the policy, the Biden administration chose to maintain it. However, he has been accused by the Republican party of not using it to its maximum potential as there has been a spike in apprehensions along the southern border just this year.

Currently, Biden has announced that the US is open to accepting some 100,000 Ukrainian refugees seeking a new home. This announcement came after he met with his NATO counterparts in Brussels. However, it is unknown what specific process these refugees would take in order to obtain entry into the US.