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Ukrainians are seeking asylum in the U.S. but pandemic limits are in the way

DAVID FOLKENFLIK, HOST:

As Ukrainians flee their country following the Russian invasion, the United States still remains closed to almost all asylum-seekers. At the U.S.-Mexico border, reporter Max Rivlin-Nadler tells us the story of one family's journey from Ukraine to the United States.

MAX RIVLIN-NADLER, BYLINE: According to aid organizations, hundreds of Russians and Ukrainians have arrived in Tijuana in recent weeks, trying to get into the United States so they can claim asylum. Maryna (ph) and her 10- and 8-year-old daughters are among those who have actually made it into the United States.

MARYNA: (Speaking Russian).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking Russian).

RIVLIN-NADLER: It's luck, Maryna tells me in San Diego. She's thankful she was able to get in, while she knows others weren't. We're just using Maryna's first name because her husband and parents are still in Ukraine. She was born in the southeast of Ukraine and speaks Russian. She told me that at first, she couldn't believe the news reports.

MARYNA: (Speaking Russian).

RIVLIN-NADLER: But by March 1, after a few nights spent in bomb shelters, Maryna decided it was time for her and her family to leave the country.

MARYNA: (Speaking Russian).

RIVLIN-NADLER: Ukrainian soldiers had filled the streets outside of her building in Vyshneve, a small city near Kyiv. And Maryna didn't know what would happen next.

MARYNA: (Speaking Russian).

RIVLIN-NADLER: Maryna had a good friend from Ukraine in San Diego. Getting on the train to Hungary, the family had become one of thousands traveling from across the globe to seek asylum in the United States. Except right now, the U.S. isn't allowing asylum-seekers to legally enter the country. That's because a public health code known as Title 42 still restricts access for migrants into the country during the pandemic. And without a visa, Maryna wasn't allowed to fly directly to the United States.

So Maryna and her daughters took a long and circuitous route after leaving danger in Ukraine - a train to Budapest, a flight to Munich, another one to Mexico City and a final flight to Tijuana. After arriving in Tijuana, the family was picked up in a car by their friend from San Diego. But this is where it got even trickier. Title 42 blocks almost all migrants from entering the United States at border crossings. But under the agreement between the United States and Mexico, Border Patrol won't return migrants from Eastern Europe once they've already crossed into the U.S. Only migrants from Central America can be sent back. So Maryna and her family needed to just get into the U.S. That's where Maryna's luck came in.

On Monday, half a world away from their home, Maryna and her family slowly rolled up to an initial checkpoint at the San Ysidro Port of Entry near San Diego and were waved through by a Customs and Border Protection agent. Thirty feet ahead at passport control, they announced they were seeking asylum. After a day spent sobbing in a freezing immigration detention center, they were released into the country with a notice to appear in immigration court.

The organization Jewish Family Service of San Diego provided assistance to Maryna and her daughters once they were in the U.S., along with thousands of other asylum-seekers who pass through San Diego each month. For Maryna, who says she can't sleep because of the worries she has for her family in Ukraine, she just wants there to be an easier way to get to safety.

MARYNA: (Speaking Russian).

RIVLIN-NADLER: She wants Ukrainians to be able to apply for safety at U.S. embassies closer to Ukraine and let the embassies decide who can go to America and not have to sneak in past border agents.

On Thursday, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer renewed his call for the administration to end Title 42. The Biden administration will decide whether to renew Title 42 by early April.

For NPR News, I'm Max Rivlin-Nadler at the U.S.-Mexico border. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Max Rivlin-Nadler