U.S. authorities allowed a Ukrainian woman and her three children to seek asylum Thursday, a reversal from a day earlier when she was denied entry under the Biden administration's sweeping restrictions for seeking humanitarian protection.
The 34-year-old woman and her children — ages 14, 12, and 6 — entered San Diego for processing after authorities blocked her path hours earlier, triggering sharp criticism from Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and other Democrats.
Blaine Bookey, legal director of the Center for Gender & Refugee Studies, was returning to San Diego on Wednesday from Tijuana, where she was helping Haitian migrants. She saw the Ukrainian woman crying with her children, looking "very uncomfortable" with a reporter "in her face."
Bookey's tweets and media coverage sparked renewed criticism of a Trump-era order to deny people a chance to seek asylum under an order to prevent the spread of COVID-19 known as Title 42 authority.
Schumer raised the Ukrainian woman's case as he called for an end to the use of Title 42, which the Biden administration has defended as health risks from COVID-19 have subsided.
"They requested refuge in one of the ports of entry on our southern border, but were turned away because of Title 42," Schumer said on a conference call with reporters. "This is not who we are as a country. Continuing this Trump-era policy has defied common sense and common decency."
U.S. Customs and Border Protection did not immediately respond to a request for comment Thursday. Migrants have been expelled more than 1.6 million times since Title 42 was introduced in March 2020.
The Ukrainian woman, who identified herself to reporters only as Sofiia, tried entering the U.S. in a car with a relative this week but was blocked, Bookey said. Another attempt on foot Wednesday was also stopped, but Bookey found her before she returned to her Tijuana hotel to wait for news.
Erika Pinheiro, litigation and policy director for Al Otro Lado advocacy group, said she got a call from CBP early Thursday, telling the woman to pack her bags and be ready on short notice. She was told to come hours later.
"She's just been very stoic for her kids, and I think she let herself get emotional," Bookey said.
The woman left Ukraine with her children on February 27 as friends warned her that Russia might invade. She went to Moldova, Romania, and Mexico, arriving in Tijuana on Monday. She plans to settle with her family in the San Francisco area and seek asylum.
The woman pulled a small red suitcase and carried a pink backpack patterned with tiny dogs as she walked into the U.S. with her 6-year-old daughter beside her and her older children behind.
Mexico accepts citizens from Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador who are expelled under Title 42 authority. People of other nationalities are subject to expulsion, but many are released into the United States to seek asylum because of the difficulties involved in flying them home. They must be on U.S. soil to claim protection, though, and authorities often block their path.
Thousands of Russians have sought asylum at San Diego border crossings in recent months after flying to Mexico. People from Ukraine and other former Soviet republics use the same route but in much lower numbers. In January, 248 Ukrainians crossed the U.S.-Mexico border, with three out of four in San Diego.
A 27-year-old Ukrainian who asked to be identified only as Kristina was left behind on the Mexican side of the border Thursday with her fiancé, a U.S. citizen. She said she had been living in Kyiv when the fighting started.
"It was so scary," Kristina said. "We just woke up and there was bombing. We never expected this."
Kristina fled to Poland, but hotels and apartments were full. She flew to Mexico where her fiancé was trying to help her get into the U.S. They spent hours waiting at the border.
"They don't listen to us," she said.