“They said it could be two or three days,” said Valentina Shymanservska, No. 884, a sunflower farmer outside of Kharkiv.
“It’s my turn any moment,” said Svyastoslav Urusky, No. 319, a university student from Lviv.
“I can’t believe we’re still waiting,” said Maxim Polosov, No. 363, who renovated houses in Slovyansk.
As of Saturday morning, the list had more than 1,200 names. Dozens more Ukrainians arrived every hour. A van drove them between Tijuana Airport and the tent where the yellow legal pad was kept.
“The List” was what they called it in Tijuana, which needed no further explanation.
The United States last month pledged to take in up to 100,000 Ukrainian refugees but has yet to find a way for them to arrive directly. There are no resettlement programs or visa pipelines. This has led to more and more Ukrainians booking flights to Mexico. They arrive at the US border on foot, many pushing children in strollers and lugging suitcases behind them.
On social media platforms and messaging apps, groups of thousands of members are now explaining the process in Ukrainian: Fly from major European cities to either Cancún or Mexico City. Ukrainians do not need a visa to enter the country. From there, take another flight to Tijuana.
A small camp has been set up about 300 meters from the US border, where families sleep in tents and under tarpaulins. It’s the same tiny speck that has hosted refugees from around the world in recent years: Central Americans who were part of the caravans in 2018; Haitians and Cubans who arrived during the pandemic; Mexicans who have fled a wave of violence this year.
But few refugees have arrived in Tijuana after such a circuitous trajectory of trains, buses, and flights. And few are processed so quickly by US authorities. Upon arrival at the border, Ukrainians will be given a one-year prison sentence on humanitarian grounds.
Mariia Verkovska, 27, and her two friends – Nos. 299 to 301 – traveled across nine countries in 10 days after leaving Ukraine at the end of February. They eventually ended up in Finland, where Verkovska joined a Telegram channel called Ukraine Mexico. They borrowed $1,300 each for flights to Tijuana via Brussels and Cancún.
Most of their families stayed behind in north-eastern Ukraine. Their brothers and fathers were forced to join the country’s armed forces. Their mothers and sisters mostly chose not to go. Some of them – in Russian-occupied cities – had no choice.
“We wanted to get as far away from Ukraine as possible, and the United States is as far away as we could think,” Verkovska said.
Others ended up in Tijuana because their relatives were US citizens or residents who had been calling for them since the war began in February. About 1 million Americans of Ukrainian descent live in the United States.
#658 on the list was a 10-year-old boy named Yshor and #659 was a 14-year-old girl named Taisia. Her aunt, Tanya Malko, had traveled from her home in Tampa to pick her up in Ukraine after the children’s mother decided to remain in the city of Chernihiv.
“Will they let us stay together after the kids have crossed the border?” Malko asked. She had heard stories from US immigration officials Separate children from relatives who officials claimed were not legal guardians.
No. 698 was Mariia Porplenko, 19, of Hostomel, whose sister had driven from West Virginia to Tijuana to meet her. Porplenko had taken a job at their town’s McDonald’s just before the war began. The sisters hugged in front of Farmacia La Linea, with the lights of one of the busiest border crossings in the world flashing behind them.
No. 612 was Gleb Prochukhan, 15, the third-placed junior table tennis player in Kharkiv, whose English was good enough to translate for some of the foreign volunteers who had come to Tijuana with blankets, protein bars and tacos.
No. 673 was Luda Hodakovska of Lutsk, who ate the first taco of her life in Tijuana on Friday night and exclaimed after her first bite, “Oh my god, that’s awesome.”
“We will work together to help you achieve your dream,” the city’s mayor, Montserrat Caballero, said when she visited the camp on Thursday. “Welcome to Tijuana.”
On Friday night, a woman serenaded the refugees while strumming an acoustic guitar. A drunk American handed hundreds of dollars in cash to a Ukrainian-American volunteer and berated Russian President Vladimir Putin as he distributed the money.
“I love Ukrainians,” he slurred.
No. 319 was 21-year-old Svyastoslav Urusky from Lviv, whose grandparents lived in Sacramento and were waiting for him across the border crossing.
Like many of the Ukrainians in Tijuana, Urusky had visited US embassies and consulates in European capitals after leaving Ukraine, inquiring about a route to refugee status in the United States.
“They told us, ‘Sorry, we don’t have any options for you yet,'” Urusky told an embassy official in Poland.
So, after reading the instructions on a Telegram channel, he and his family booked flights to Mexico. His number was called at 1 p.m. Friday afternoon.
“We have room for one more family,” a US immigration officer had said on the other side of the barbed wire, next to Urusky, who was sitting in a folding chair. He got up and grinned.
One of the volunteers managing the list was Anna Zinchenko, a Ukrainian-American nurse who drove to Tijuana from Spokane, Washington. She was trying to decide which families to prioritize, who should go to the top of the list because of illness, or because their children were freezing when the nights got colder.
“It was too much pressure,” said Zinchenko. “I’m a soft person. Being in control of the list was too much for me.”
At the Tijuana border crossing, US officials have ordered that only Ukrainians can be put on the list. A directive known as Title 42, due to be lifted in May, has barred asylum seekers from crossing the border to assert their claims since the pandemic began. It has been used in about 1.7 million deportations of migrants in the last two years.
On Friday, a family of Honduran asylum seekers turned away at the border stopped by the Ukrainian camp to ask for loose change.
US officials have carved out a Title 42 waiver for Ukrainians. But many Russians are fleeing at the same time, including some with Ukrainian relatives. No. 939 was a Ukrainian whose 18-year-old son had a Russian passport.
“Will they let us through?” she asked a volunteer. Nobody could answer.
Valentina Shymanservska, number 884, owns a farm near Kharkiv. She looked up at the trees that grew along the highway near the camp.
Her two-year-old grandson Danylo played alongside her. He and Shymanservska’s daughter Alina had narrowly escaped the town of Shevchenko in eastern Ukraine, which had been heavily shelled and mined by Russian forces. Danylo now gasped at loud noises. They left Ukraine only seven days ago.
Every Ukrainian in Tijuana had a different idea of how long they would stay in the United States. Some said they planned to migrate permanently. Others said they would be leaving after their one-year probation expired on humanitarian grounds.
Shymanservska had her own plan.
“Two weeks,” she said. “That’s how long I intend to stay. The first day they tell me the war is over, we’ll go back.”
Her daughter and newborn grandson had driven from Marysville, Washington to meet them across the border.
“That’s all I’m thinking about now,” she said. “I hold both of my grandchildren, one in each arm.”