Fleeing war, Ukrainians find open arms but a closed border

Refugees navigate a path to the United States through Mexico that’s complicated by politics

Ukrainians fleeing war in their homeland found open arms across the West. But for many, reaching the United States proved to be an arduous journey charged by border politics.

Some, like Maxim Blyzniuk and Oksana Ilchishena arrived in Mexico and made it across the border with their families into the United States, only to encounter hardship on the other side. Others, like Inna Dunai, a mother of five, flew across an ocean only to find the U.S. border shut — leaving them trapped in an unfamiliar foreign country, confused and disillusioned.

They found help from fellow Ukrainians in the U.S. and Mexican diasporas. Tech entrepreneur Artur Kiulian and psychologist Ilona Dluzhynska were among those who rallied support and resources. But the road ahead, with all of the complicated politics of war and borders, remains uncertain.

TIJUANA

Part I

Leaving Ukraine

Moscow’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24 triggered a mass exodus not seen in Europe since World War II. Millions fled to neighboring nations in the European Union as Russian President Vladimir Putin’s forces advanced. But messaging apps and Ukrainian-speaking social media influencers also posted instructions on a centuries-old route traveled by millions of migrants to reach another destination: the United States.

They were told it was easy. They were told help was waiting. All they had to do was reach Mexico and cross the border.

Thousands of Ukrainian families spent their last savings on flights to Cancún and Tijuana.

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Part II

A policy shift

More than 6 million Ukrainians have fled since the start of the war, most dispersed west and south to Poland, Romania and beyond into Western Europe, according to the United Nations’ refugee agency.

Far fewer, about 71,000, crossed the Atlantic. The United States initially exempted Ukrainians from Title 42, the pandemic-era emergency public health order that keeps most migrants out. That changed in mid-April when images of White, European immigrants bypassing Brown and Black arrivals at the southern border prompted allegations of disparate treatment.

Wary officials closed the border to Ukrainians, hoping to discourage smugglers and people from making the journey. Arsenii Oharkhov and Inna Dunai were among the hundreds of Ukrainians still en route to Mexico when the policy shifted suddenly.

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Part III

Tough decision

Shut out from immediate entry into the United States, many Ukrainian worried about what to do next — suddenly stuck in Mexico, a country they knew little about.

Then came word of a new program called Uniting for Ukraine. The U.S. government initiative is designed to vet and process applications for up to 100,000 Ukrainian citizens for a two-year stay. Applicants need Ukrainian passports and a U.S. sponsor willing to support them financially. Eventually, approved adults can obtain work permits. The reprieve is not a traditional refugee resettlement program and the first Ukrainians applicants did not receive government help to find homes in the United States or cash assistance.

Disoriented Ukrainians in Mexico faced a difficult choice: Stay in Mexico and hope to qualify for the program or relocate somewhere else.

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LOS ANGELES

Part I

Finding refuge

Before the U.S.-Mexico border closed, nearly 20,000 Ukrainians entered — joining relatives and strangers, in states like California, who volunteered to take them in while they awaited work permits, a process that can take more than three months.

Maxim Blyzniuk, his wife and special-needs son got a new start in Los Angeles, where an American family they had never met offered them a free apartment after they crossed the border in early April. But they know everything has an expiration date.

Oksana Ilchishena arrived with her three children and a dog named Lucifer. While her brother in Pasadena welcomed them, she knows she cannot ask him to shoulder their financial burden or live cramped in his tiny mobile home for too long.

All these pressing needs weigh on the families while they try recover from the trauma of leaving everything behind.

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Part II

New struggles

Blyzniuk abandoned a sound-engineering business, friends and his eldest son in Kharkiv as the bombs started falling. It was a harrowing escape spurred by his youngest’s need for reliable health care for his cerebral palsy. They loved their life in Ukraine before war disrupted it.

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Part III

A network grows

For now, Blyzniuk’s family relies on UkraineNow, a nonprofit group founded by tech entrepreneur Artur Kiulian. He immigrated to the United States five years ago from Ukraine, obtaining a rare extraordinary ability visa that has opened doors for him in the start-up world.

When the invasion began, he could not sleep until he found a way to help his people. Kiulian had previously developed artificial intelligence technology for nonprofit organizations, and he began tailoring it to recruit and coordinate volunteers worldwide to help Ukrainians escape the war. UkraineNow evacuated hundreds of families by bus and air across Europe, putting them up in rental housing and connecting them to local resources.

Kiulian’s network extended wherever Ukrainians sought refuge and needed help. That included the U.S.-Mexico border, where his mother, sister-in-law, niece and nephew soon arrived. Their forced migration meant starting over in a place nearly as confounding to them as Putin’s aggression toward their homeland.

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Part IV

Confusion — and hope

Under the Uniting for Ukraine program, federal immigration officials vet applicants before they can book their flights. The first Ukrainian applicants in Europe — about 6,000 people — received travel documents in mid-May, about three weeks after the program launched. But the process was confusing for many, especially those who were in Mexico.

There was trouble with the website. The paperwork was burdensome. Some families could not easily find U.S. sponsors. Getting vaccines to fulfill the medical requirements took time and resources. And after applying, word did not come for longer than anyone expected. Eventually, those early problems were smoothed over and by late May, the Department of Health and Human Services granted Ukrainians the aid officially designated refugees normally access. Individuals granted humanitarian parole receive a Social Security number and can apply for work authorization once in the United States.

The Biden administration is tracking Ukrainians admitted into the nation much the same way it does other immigrants. But no system is foolproof, and it is unclear how closely federal officials are ensuring U.S. sponsors abide by their commitment to financially support these refugees.

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MEXICO CITY

Part I

Cold nights, hot days

In Mexico, many Ukrainians who had hoped to cross the border pivoted toward the capital city, where they would be closer to the U.S. Embassy and the nation’s main airport.

Volunteer organizations set up a new camp in one of the most dangerous neighborhoods of Mexico City. The group worked with Mexican officials to pull together a crude assembly of tents inside a sporting complex. The Mexican Navy erected a kitchen, and local physicians provided medical care. Immigration authorities’ protective control of the camp stood in contrast to treatment of other migrants routinely left to fend for themselves and become victim to criminal organizations.

Ukrainian children, the elderly and entire families waited under the unfamiliar hot Mexican sun to apply to the U.S. program, find sponsors and pray for travel documents they were not sure would come. The strange and uncertain arrangement was unsustainable long-term, pushing Kiulian to travel to Mexico and try to deliver an alternative.

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Part II

A better refuge

Kiulian connected with Ilona Dluzhynska, a Ukrainian who grew up in Mexico, and Mexican activist Elisa Schmelkes, who co-founded Ukrainian Diaspora in Mexico. The three sought to find better housing for the refugees with help from local civic leaders and the United Nations. They did not know when, or whether, the United States would accept the 500 or so refugees stuck in Mexico. But leaving them in that camp was not an option.

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Part III

A helping hand

The days grew grim inside the Mexico City camp. In Tijuana, people had cycled out and into the United States quickly. But here, the 5-to-7-day turnaround estimates turned into weeks. Shellshocked Ukrainian refugees held onto their faith, praying and singing hymns to pass the steamy afternoons. Their days were punctuated by news of a relative dying or a home leveled by artillery. They endured for nearly four weeks without word from beyond the border.

The first approvals arrived a month after Uniting for Ukraine launched. Travel documents took approximately another week. Volunteers said more people were arriving from Europe every day.

By the end of May, the Mexico City camp had emptied. Oharkhov, along with hundreds of families, traveled to the United States to begin anew. He had planned to live in Boston with a U.S. sponsor he had never met. But that fell through, and he’s with friends in California. Dunai is in Northern California, paying $1,800 in rent and expecting her sixth child. Blyzniuk’s family is living in their donated home until late fall. But they are isolated and still do not have permission to work. Ilchishena has also applied for employment authorization, and she learned there is a backlog.

Above all else, they miss Ukraine.

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correction

A previous version of this article misstated the last names of two people. They are Ilona Dluzhynska, not Ilona Dluz, and Oksana Ilchishena, not Oksana Ilchena. The article has been corrected.

About this story

Story editing by David Bruns and Christine Armario. Design and development by Yutao Chen. Design editing by Joe Moore. Copy editing by Melissa Ngo. Additional videography by Zoeann Murphy. Translations by Lesia Prokopenko and Thalia Juarez.