U.S. immigration officials detained more than 5,000 migrants from Ukraine at the nation’s land, sea and air borders in March, with a significant increase in those seeking refuge at the U.S.-Mexico boundary, adding to the record influx of newcomers from Latin America and the Caribbean this year, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection figures released Monday.
The tally — up from fewer than 1,150 the month before — marks the first official accounting of Ukrainians seeking refuge at the ports and borders since Russia’s invasion began Feb. 24. They are part of a larger group of more than 220,000 detentions on the Southwest border in March, the highest monthly total since 2000.
Many, if not most, Ukrainians have been released into the United States via humanitarian parole, which allows people to stay temporarily, and they continued arriving this month, though updated figures were not available. The Biden administration responded to the influx Monday by announcing that it would extend the eligibility of Ukrainians for “temporary protected status,” allowing them to stay here for 18 months and apply for work permits, if they arrived by April 11.
Previously, Ukrainians could apply for the protection if they were here by March 1, but that would have left out thousands of people who crossed in the past few weeks. Federal officials estimate 59,600 Ukrainians may apply, lower than previous projections.
“This ongoing armed conflict poses a serious threat to the safety of nationals returning to Ukraine,” officials said in a notice to be published in the Federal Register on Tuesday. “Extraordinary and temporary conditions, including destroyed infrastructure, scarce resources, and lack of access to healthcare, prevent Ukrainian nationals from returning to their homeland in safety.”
The United Nations says 4.9 million people have fled Ukraine, most into neighboring countries, marking the “fastest growing refugee crisis since World War II.”
President Biden — who has labeled Russian atrocities in Ukraine a “genocide” — has promised to welcome 100,000 Ukrainian refugees, but the White House has not yet provided them a direct path into the country. So thousands are figuring it out for themselves after quizzing friends and relatives and watching videos of lawyers dispensing advice on social media. Some are arriving with tourist visas; others are catching flights to Mexico, waving their passports at border checkpoints and begging to be let in.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki said this month that the administration is crafting an “expedited process” to admit war refugees and that it expects to unveil details soon. U.S. officials have said refugees fleeing the war are likely to arrive in a variety of ways, including through the conventional U.S. refugee program, which offers permanent residency but can take months or years to finalize, and the speedier route of humanitarian parole.
Michael Levitis, 45, a Moscow-born radio host in New York whose father is from Ukraine, said people are rushing to the border because the Biden administration has not specified how they should enter the United States and it has become one of the faster ways to get in.
“The biggest reason is just confusion,” Levitis said in an interview. “There are no clear instructions for Ukrainian displaced people of how they should arrive in the U.S. So, out of desperation they’re going to Mexico because Mexico allows people with Ukrainian passports to arrive there.”
The number of Ukrainians admitted through the conventional refugee program dropped from 427 in February to 12 in March.
In February, only 272 Ukrainians showed up at the Southwest border seeking entry, but last month that number spiked to more than 3,200, the majority of the Ukrainians admitted last month.
In the first six months of this fiscal year, which started in October, CBP has encountered more than 10,600 Ukrainians at the nation’s air, land and sea ports, compared with more than 9,300 in all of fiscal year 2021.
CBP’s monthly report includes statistics about migrants who attempt to cross between legal ports of entry, and those who show up at legal ports of entry and request permission to enter the country.
Lawmakers and advocacy groups have urged the Biden administration to admit Ukrainians more quickly and provide them clearer direction. Levitis said his family arrived in 1988 under a special program for Soviet Jews, and he wrote Biden in March urging him to create similar guidelines for war refugees.
The White House on Friday had no updates on the plan to receive refugees, but Biden remembered Ukraine in his Passover message, saying, “We hold in our hearts the people of Ukraine and those around the world whose heroic stand against tyranny inspires us all.”
The Ukrainians are part of a much broader influx of migrants arriving at the Southwest border: CBP detained 221,303 people at the Southwest border last month, many more than once, up 33 percent from more than 165,894 in February, according to the agency. More migrants are expected after May 23, when U.S. officials will end a pandemic health order known as Title 42 that has led to the mass expulsion of most migrants over the past two years.
Now officials say they are preparing to process asylum applications and deport those who do not have a legal basis to stay, but they are bracing for a “historic border surge,” an immigration official told a federal judge in a court filing this month.
Arrests along the southern border exceeded 1.73 million during the 2021 fiscal year, a record expected to be surpassed this year.
Among the groups driving the higher March numbers were people from Mexico, Cuba, Nicaragua and Colombia. Overall, single adults remained the largest group stopped at the border, but the number of families and unaccompanied minors also rose.
About half of all migrants taken into custody last month were expelled under the Title 42 order, though that varied by citizenship, with most Ukrainians getting into the United States and the majority of Mexicans being pushed out, CBP records show.
Republicans and some Democrats are urging Biden to keep the expulsion policy in place, with midterm elections in Congress threatening to upend Democrats’ hold on the House and the Senate.
Attorneys general from 21 states have filed a federal lawsuit in Louisiana seeking to block the administration from ending Title 42, calling the rescission “an imminent, man-made, self-inflicted calamity” that would eliminate “the only safety valve preventing this Administration’s disastrous border policies from devolving into unmitigated chaos and catastrophe.”
Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas and Secretary of State Antony Blinken were scheduled to travel this week to Panama, a nation that is increasingly a bridge for migrants heading from South America on their way to Mexico and the United States, to discuss managing migration and addressing the “root causes” of hunger, poverty and social instability that are driving people north.
Advocates have pressed officials to aid immigrants, both the new arrivals and the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants who have lived inside the United States for many years.
Mayorkas on Friday responded to those demands by granting an estimated 11,700 immigrants from Cameroon temporary protection from being deported for 18 months because of ongoing armed conflicts between the government and separatist groups, as well as a “significant rise” in violent attacks by the extremist group Boko Haram. To qualify, immigrants must have already resided in the United States as of April 14, pay an application fee and pass background checks.
The designation adds Cameroon for the first time to a growing list of countries — including Sudan, Haiti and Ukraine — that the Department of Homeland Security has declared eligible for temporary protected status.
Nick Miroff contributed to this report.