These Russians are fleeing to the US – on foot from Mexico
A man wipes away a tear of joy as he takes his first steps in an unknown place, an emigrant from the land of Dostoyevsky invading cactus-strewn cowboy country.
He is part of a striking new phenomenon: more and more Russians are fleeing their homeland via Mexico and immigrating to the United States.
Rushan Burkhanov trembles with relief as he steps onto American soil just after dawn, beneath a purple-pink color palette that dissolves into the endless desert twilight.
CBC News spotted about a dozen Russians one morning visiting a piece of land where Arizona, California and Mexico converge.
Several families crossed a dry riverbed and waited outside of Yuma, Arizona, for US border officials to pick them up so they could file for asylum.
Some talked about their trip – why they left Russia, why they traveled through Mexico and what they plan to do next.
Burkhanov used to repair and sell used cars in a historic port town on the Volga and said he was shocked by what he learned about the war in Ukraine.
The television news at home made it sound as if President Vladimir Putin intended his invasion to protect people and save lives.
“In reality it was an attack on a neighboring country,” he said.
“They killed people, raped people, and Ukraine was never our enemy.”
He said he was so concerned that he, a practicing Muslim, began speaking out at his mosque and taking part in protests.
But there were consequences: “I was arrested, beaten,” he said.
Fearing further punishment and being drafted himself, he, his wife and their daughter embarked on a three-week trip — first to Kazakhstan, then with flights to Dubai, Mexico City and the border town of Mexicali, and a short walk down a dirt path via the Border.
Another man waiting at the border said he started complaining about the new school curriculum in Russia and that’s when his problems started.
The man said he expressed anger at his children being force-fed in the classroom with government propaganda.
This earned him a police visit to his home, he said.
He answered CBC News’ questions via a translation app on a smartphone because he doesn’t speak English but uttered two words that didn’t need translation.
He pointed to his temple and said, “Putin, lunatic.”
Another young man, like the father above, asked that his name not be published amid fears for relatives back home.
This man did not cite the war as his main reason for emigrating, although he said he opposed the conflict.
Nor did he complain about the Russian economy. In his view, the economy was doing well and he was making a decent living as a taxi driver.
His American dream, he said, goes back a long way.
He learned English at school and rattled off a list of Hollywood movies he loves. He said he longs to be a truck driver – and not to drive just any truck, but the biggest American trucks in the biggest city with the tallest buildings, New York.
“In Russia, trucks are small. In the US, trucks are big. That’s my little dream,” says the man from the North Caucasus.
He mentioned movies and cartoons like Tom and Jerry And Ace Ventura. His all-time favorite actor, he said, is Jim Carrey, who didn’t realize he was born in Canada until a reporter pointed it out mid-interview.
Russians flee in droves via Mexico
When it comes to Russians crossing the southern US land line, the latest statistics are staggering.
More than 60,000 Russian nationals could be encountered by US border officials this year if the pace of recent months continues — triple last year’s level and more than 60 times the pre-pandemic rate.
The Russians who spoke to CBC News explained why they arrived at that particular place. It’s a dusty patch of earth, next to an old stretch of border wall, inside US territory. It’s near irrigated fields that produce all the vegetables that North Americans eat in the winter, little patches of green in an endless expanse of desert brown.
The Russians consulted online chat sites and learned that you can apply for asylum in the US on one condition – you must first manage to enter US soil.
In recent years, asylum seekers have been turned away at regular border controls before crossing the international border.
So now they’re looking for erratic avenues like this, where criminal gangs run rampant, often robbing, raping, and kidnapping along the way.
Several migrants from other countries, interviewed by CBC News, claimed they had been subjected to outrageous abuses, including theft and sexual assault, by Mexican police officers.
But these Russians fared better that day.
They described trouble-free rides; Some have also used Dubai as a transit point to Mexico City.
California, New York, Canada?
Next, they will be based in different parts of the US – California, Chicago and New York City were three destinations that people mentioned.
Some describe Canada as an option if things don’t work out in the US. But Burkhanov said he would prefer to live in a warm place for once in his life.
CLOCK | Escape to America:
The Jim Carrey fan echoed the sentiment.
While he would consider Canada because its economy is strong, he said he grew up in a cold mountain climate and wants something different.
“I like it hot,” he said.
Your asylum procedures could take years.
Asylum is granted to people who are persecuted because of their race, religion or political opinion.
It is unlikely that references to Ace Ventura and big trucks would set the stage for a successful case, but Russian applicants have above-average success rates.
In asylum applications decided last year, more than half of Russians won their cases, better than applicants from most other countries, according to the US Justice Department.
However, a record-breaking backlog of cases also means it takes almost five years to decide on the average application, according to a Syracuse University research center.
How is the mood in Russia?
When asked about the mood in their homeland, the Russians find it difficult to assess it. This includes how much support there is for the war.
The father, complaining about his children’s schooling, blurted out with a gut reaction: “Ninety-nine percent [support it]. Because 99 percent of the time there are crazy people.”
But he concedes it’s more complicated when asked if this supposedly solid support is perhaps a mirage fueled by duress.
“If you’re quiet, you stay safe,” he said.
Burkhanov’s own analysis is that opposition to the war is growing in Russia but is being banned from public view.
The aspiring trucker shares that sentiment, but says it’s difficult to really gauge public opinion.
“I really don’t know,” he said. “More and more people in Russia [do] not support the war. But nobody says it.”
For what it’s worth, an independent thinker pollster in Russia reported late last year that about half of Russians supported the war in Ukraine.
Thousands of Russians now arrive every month.
A volunteer who brings food and water to the makeshift migrant camp outside Yuma says he saw it with his own eyes.
“Every day that’s what we usually see now,” said Fernando Quiroz, a volunteer with the Arizona California Humanitarian Coalition.
“Russians and Georgians come across in this place.”
In an ideal world, he said, these asylum seekers should be able to apply at regular checkpoints.
But he blamed a broken US immigration system for forcing people to improvise themselves down made-up, non-legal routes like this.
At least this way is flat. It’s better than the murderous mountain passes to the east, long notorious for wreaking tragedy on lost travelers.
The crossing near Yuma is “easy,” he said.
“I’m glad they’re crossing here. … You are not crossing dangerous terrain.”
It takes a few hours for US border officials to round up the Russians. They are loaded onto vehicles and taken to detention centers where they are treated and then released.
Your first morning in America is over. It’s unclear how many more they’ll have here as they move from the desert to locations east, west, and north — their ultimate goal: to confirm.
CBC News has been there from the start, covering Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. What would you like to know about your experience there? Email [email protected] Our reporters will answer your questions as the one-year anniversary approaches.