IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Ukrainians seeking refuge at the U.S.-Mexico border stuck in legal limbo

“I’m so stressed. I can’t think straight,” one Ukrainian father said as he waited for his daughter to be processed by immigration officials. “I just want to hug my daughter.”
Get more newsLiveon

SAN DIEGO — Armed with a backpack and a smartphone, Ihor Solomko paced back and forth outside the San Ysidro Port of Entry at the U.S.-Mexico border Tuesday, anxiously waiting for news from his eldest daughter, who was stopped by border officials as she attempted to cross into the U.S. early that morning after fleeing war-torn Ukraine.

The family has been separated since 2016, when Solomko and his wife secured green cards and relocated permanently to Wisconsin with their youngest daughter. Their older daughter stayed behind in Ukraine with her husband and hadn’t seen her parents in two years.

“I’m so stressed. I can’t think straight,” Solomko said. “I just want to hug my daughter.”

Solomko is one of hundreds of Ukrainians living in the U.S. who rushed to pick up loved ones at the U.S.-Mexico border, which became a flashpoint in recent weeks for Eastern Europeans expecting to be immediately welcomed into the United States. 

But confusion and frustration is overshadowing humanitarian efforts as conflicting information from the Biden administration leaves thousands of people stuck in legal limbo, without a direct way to seek asylum and making it difficult for loved ones in the U.S. to contact relatives who are being detained or processed by immigration officials.

“They’re sending a message not to come here,” Julia Bikbova, a Chicago-based immigration lawyer working pro bono at the border, said. 

The U.S. border is still officially closed to asylum-seekers because of Title 42, a public health policy enacted under the Trump administration that expires May 23. That will coincide with the Biden administration’s new plans to expedite asylum claims at the border by allowing immigration officers to grant asylum instead of waiting for judges.

After initially blocking Ukrainian refugees from entering through Mexico, the U.S. began admitting some asylum-seekers on humanitarian parole nearly three weeks ago. A Department of Homeland Security memo dated March 11 told border officials that Ukrainians may be exempt from the sweeping asylum limits, designed to prevent the spread of Covid-19, on a case-by-case basis.  

Then last week, the Biden administration announced plans to welcome up to 100,000 Ukrainians through a range of pathways, including the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program, nonimmigrant and immigrant visas, and other means.

Anastasiia Moskalenko and Ihor Solomko reunite at San Diego International Airport on Thursday.
Anastasiia Moskalenko and Ihor Solomko reunite at San Diego International Airport on Thursday.Courtesy Ihor Solomko

Combined, the two announcements sparked hope for thousands of people eager to wait out the war with friends and relatives in the United States and triggered a wave of arrivals to the border.

Once they reached the border, however, many Ukrainians have not received the welcome they expected. Unaware that migrants from other countries have been waiting for weeks or longer to be processed, Ukrainians are sometimes swept into a rigorous vetting system that can take up to a day or more before they are released into the United States. 

In the meantime, they wait in a makeshift holding area on the Tijuana, Mexico, side of the border. Packed into a long line littered with food and water, hundreds of Ukrainians crammed together in recent days to stay out of the wind and rain. Volunteers passed out pizza and other snacks, using donation money to pay for bathroom access at nearby stalls.

Many of those waiting to enter the United States are traveling with small children or older relatives. Luggage is not a problem: Many rushed out of their homes with just a small backpack or whatever they could carry.

“It’s horrific,” Bikbova said Tuesday afternoon. “It’s getting into a crisis situation right now like no other day I’ve seen.”

Bikbova's phone has been ringing nonstop since she arrived at the border. She said it's filled with anxious texts and messages from people wondering when their loved ones will finally be allowed into the United States.

Earlier this week, she met Mark Lehmkuhler, who had been waiting since Sunday for his Ukrainian fiancée to be processed. By Monday evening, he had still not heard from her. 

“There’s just a single check mark on WhatsApp,” he said, indicating that the last message he sent her had not yet been read. “She has no access to a phone. I have no idea what’s going on in there.”

Lehmkuhler flew with his fiancée from Cancun, Mexico, to Tijuana on Sunday. The two had been staying with friends in Mexico for several weeks and rushed to the border after hearing news that Ukrainians would be admitted on a case-by-case basis. Lehmkuhler, who is a U.S. citizen, passed through immigration in 15 minutes. His fiancée, a Ukrainian citizen, was stopped Sunday night and forced to sleep in a holding cell with nine other women, he said. They slept on thin mats with metal benches and an open toilet in the room. 

On Monday, Lehmkuhler’s fiancée was released into the United States and sent to a hotel near the border where she was screened for Covid-19, he added. After she tested negative, the couple was reunited. 

“There is no rhyme or reason why they treated people like this,” Lehmkuhler said. “Nobody was prepared.”

Volunteers and immigration lawyers working at the border say the number of Ukrainians attempting to enter the U.S. is growing by the hour. Natalie Moores, a business attorney from nearby Rancho Santa Fe, California, who has helped build a loose coalition of volunteer organizations for Ukrainian asylum-seekers, estimated that she and her network of some 90 volunteers have been in contact with roughly 800 Ukrainians attempting to cross from Tijuana to San Diego this week alone.

Ukrainian And Russian Migrants Wait To Cross Into U.S. From Mexico
Ukrainian refugees Sasha Alexandra and Olena embrace shortly before they are allowed to cross into the U.S. to seek asylum in Tijuana, Mexico, on March 21.Mario Tama / Getty Images file

Bikbova said she counted some 300 people waiting to cross Tuesday morning and another 350 Wednesday morning. Several had been waiting since the night before, while others had recently landed on flights from Mexico City and Cancun. 

Solomko’s daughter was one of those arrivals. 

She fled Ukraine at the beginning of March, leaving behind her husband and dreams of starting a family in her home country. She made her way to Poland and waited for two weeks until hearing news that the U.S. would accept Ukrainian asylum-seekers, Solomko said. She boarded a train to Paris and eventually flew to Tijuana to cross by foot. 

“She hasn’t showered in four days,” Solomko said while standing outside the port of entry.

Several hours later, he collapsed. Volunteers standing by ready to help Ukrainian asylum-seekers rushed to his aid as the former history teacher nearly shattered a knee and narrowly avoided slamming his face into the concrete, Moores said.

Emergency room doctors would later check his vitals and release him with blood caked to his arms and lips.

“He was so worried about my sister,” Solomko’s younger daughter, Marina Solomko, said from her family’s home in Green Bay, Wisconsin. “He was running around trying to figure out what to do and hadn’t eaten or slept in 24 hours.”

When she heard the news, Moores rushed to pick up Solomko from the hospital. Volunteers near San Diego secured him a meal and a hotel room using their own money, she said. On the Tijuana side of the border, Moores’ network of volunteers rushed to find Solomko’s daughter and helped push her to the front of the processing line.

She was granted humanitarian parole and, Tuesday night, stepped onto U.S. soil.