Maksim Derzhko describes it as one of the scariest experiences of his life. Long a critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin, he flew from Vladivostok to Tijuana, Mexico, with his 14-year-old daughter and was in a car with seven other Russians. All that stood between them and seeking asylum in the United States was a U.S. officer standing in traffic as vehicles approached inspection booths.
He describes his emotions as “difficult to put into words.” “It’s because I’m afraid. The unknowable. It’s extremely difficult. We didn’t have a choice.”
The gamble paid off. Derzkho was released after a day in custody to seek asylum with his daughter, joining thousands of Russians who have recently taken the same route to America. Even before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine resulted in punitive sanctions imposed by the US and its allies, the US was seeing an increase in Russian asylum seekers. From August to January, more than 8,600 Russians sought refuge on the US-Mexico border, more than 35 times the 249 who did so the previous year. In San Diego, nine out of ten people used official border crossings.
Migrants from other former Soviet republics take a similar route in smaller numbers, though some authorities are now expecting more Ukrainians. After twice blocking her entry, the United States admitted a Ukrainian family of four on humanitarian grounds on Thursday.
In contrast to the United States, Russians do not require visas to visit Mexico. Many fly from Moscow to Cancun, enter Mexico as tourists, and travel to Tijuana, where they pool money to buy or rent cars. As they approach San Diego’s San Ysidro border crossing, where approximately 30,000 cars enter the United States each day, adrenaline rushes.
Before vehicles reach inspection booths, concrete barriers funnel 24 lanes of traffic to a border marked by a few rows of yellow reflector bumps similar to those used to divide highway lanes. The bumps are separated from the inspection booths by a buffer zone.
Migrants only need to cross that line to seek asylum in the United States. However, officers stationed on the Mexican side of the border attempt to obstruct them by peering into vehicles, motioning motorists to flash travel documents, and stopping vehicles they deem suspicious.
Russians share travel advice on social media and messaging apps. One unidentified man described his journey from Moscow’s Red Square to a hotel room in San Diego, with stops in Cancun and Mexico City. His YouTube video shows him admitting to being nervous after purchasing a used car in Tijuana, but he later says in San Diego that everything went smoothly — despite spending two days in U.S. custody — and that others considering the journey should not be afraid.
Even though President Joe Biden has maintained sweeping Trump-era asylum restrictions, Russians are virtually guaranteed a chance at asylum if they set foot on American soil. Border agents have the authority to deny migrants the right to seek asylum on the grounds that doing so risks spreading COVID-19. However, the cost, logistics, and strained diplomatic relations make it difficult to return some nationalities.
Russians and others from former Soviet republics prefer to drive through official crossings rather than attempt illegal crossings in deserts and mountains. They do not typically hire smugglers, but “a facilitator” may assist in arranging travel, according to Chad Plantz, special agent in charge of Homeland Security Investigations in San Diego.
Other incidents have raised security concerns, according to Plantz. According to court documents, on December 12, the driver of a car carrying migrants from Ukraine and Tajikistan ignored an officer’s orders to show identification and struck the officer’s hand with a car door mirror as he accelerated past him.
A federal judge in San Diego ruled that blocking asylum-seekers is illegal, but he did not issue specific instructions, allowing authorities to continue their practices. According to Erika Pinheiro, litigation and policy director for Al Otro Lado, an advocacy group that sued over asylum limits at border crossings, US authorities work with Mexican officials to keep migrants from reaching the buffer zone.
Yuliya Pashkova, a San Diego attorney who represents Russian asylum seekers, attributes the increase in arrivals to last year’s imprisonment of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny. Asylum seekers include Putin critics, gay men, Muslims, and business owners who have been extorted by the authorities.