It’s destination California for Ukrainian refugees

A group of Ukrainians arrive to a shelter, April 21, 2022, in the border city of Tijuana, Mexico. (GREGORY BULL / AP)

California has increasingly become a destination for Ukrainian refugees as thousands of them travel to Mexico's northern border in a bid to seek asylum in the United States.

The US government announced last month that the country would accept 100,000 Ukrainian refugees, but it hasn't said when the formal resettlement process will begin.

Many Ukrainians have chosen to arrive in Mexico, a country they can enter without a visa, to ask US immigration agents to let them in on humanitarian grounds.

In the border city of Tijuana, which has become a popular transit point for Ukrainian refugees, authorities have turned a sports complex into a makeshift shelter. The new arrivals wait days in the shelter for their turn to be allowed entry into California. Some sleep in tents or on the floor of converted gyms, according to a report by The New York Times on Wednesday.

More than 5 million Ukrainians have fled their country since Feb 24, when Russia began its special military operation, according to the UN refugee agency. Tijuana has seen "a surprising influx" of Ukrainian refugees since the city started seeing arrivals on March 11, Enrique Lucero, director of migrant affairs for the city, told the CNN network.

While he expects all the migrants to enter the US, Lucero said the US authorities have been slow to process them and that's why so many people have gathered.

The Department of Homeland Security is allowing Ukrainians, on a case-by-case basis, to be exempted from pandemic restrictions brought in during the presidency of Donald Trump. The curbs resulted in the expulsion of migrants encountered at the US-Mexico border in order to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in holding facilities.

The administration of US President Joe Biden has kept the restrictions on migrants seeking entry except unaccompanied children and some families. Those restrictions will end on May 23, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced recently.

Dozens of Ukrainian children have been separated from relatives, friends or older siblings with whom they traveled to the US southern border because of a law devised to prevent migrant children from being trafficked, according to the Times report.

'Unaccompanied minors'

The law requires US border authorities to place "unaccompanied minors" in government shelters, where they must remain until their guardians have been screened and approved.

The separations became controversial in 2018 when the Trump administration intentionally removed children from migrant parents to discourage border crossings. The children, many of whom fled gang violence in Central America, were sent to government shelters.

US authorities haven't released figures on how many Ukrainian children have been separated from caregivers, but volunteers working with the refugees said they have counted at least 50. Up to 20 children have lately been arriving daily in Tijuana with someone other than a parent, they said.

Hundreds of Ukrainians seeking asylum at the border have already crossed into California from Mexico. They will likely go to cities that already have large Ukrainian communities.

The Sacramento area in California is home to the highest concentration of Ukrainian immigrants in the US, with 1 in every 125 residents of Ukrainian descent, according to the Migration Policy Institute. The Seattle, Chicago and New York City areas are also hubs.