These Russians are fleeing to the U.S. — by walking from Mexico


A man wipes away a joyful tear as he takes his first steps into an unfamiliar place, an émigré from the land of Dostoyevsky entering cactus-dotted cowboy country.

He’s part of a striking new phenomenon: Russians are increasingly fleeing their homeland through Mexico and walking into the United States.

Rushan Burkhanov trembles with relief as he treads on American soil just after daybreak, under a purple-pink palette dissolving in the endless desert dawn.

CBC News saw about a dozen Russians in one morning when visiting a patch of land where Arizona, California and Mexico converge.

Several families crossed a dried-out riverbed and were waiting, outside Yuma, Ariz., for U.S. border agents to collect them, so they could file asylum claims.

Some spoke about their journey — about why they left Russia, why they transited through Mexico, and what they plan next.

A migrant offers people sunflower seeds from a bag he travelled with from Russia, as he waits to make an asylum claim at a makeshift camp near Yuma, Ariz. (Jason Burles/CBC)

Burkhanov used to fix and sell used cars in a historic port city along the Volga River and said he was shaken by what he’d learned about the war in Ukraine.

The television news back home made it sound like President Vladimir Putin’s intention in invading was to protect people, to save lives.

“In reality, it was an attack on a neighbouring country,” he said. 

“They killed people, raped people, and Ukraine was never our enemy.”

He said he was so disturbed that he, a practising Muslim, began speaking out at his mosque and attending protests.

But there were consequences: “I was held in custody, beaten,” he said. 

Migrants from Russia and Azerbaijan crossing an irrigation canal in San Luis, Ariz. The border runs behind them along the dried-up route of the Colorado River. (Jason Burles/CBC)

Fearful of further punishment and of being drafted himself, he, his wife and their daughter made a three-week trip — first to Kazakhstan, then with flights to Dubai, Mexico City and the border town of Mexicali, and a short walk on a dirt path, across the border.

Another man waiting at the border said he’d started complaining about the new school curriculum in Russia and that’s when his troubles began.

The man said he’d expressed annoyance that his children were being force-fed government propaganda in the classroom.

This earned a police visit to his house, he said.

He answered CBC News’s questions through a translation app on a smartphone since he doesn’t speak any English, yet did utter two words that required no translation.

He pointed at his temple and said: “Putin, maniac.”

A Russian family waits to file an asylum claim in San Luis. Russian applicants have higher-than-average success rates with such claims. (Jason Burles/CBC)

Another young man, like the aforementioned father, asked that his name not be published as feared for relatives back home.

This man didn’t mention war as his principal reason for emigrating, although he said he opposes the conflict.

Nor did he complain about the Russian economy. In his view, the economy was doing fine, and he was making a decent living as a taxi driver.

His American dream, he said, goes way back.

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 trucks, but the biggest American trucks, in the biggest city, with the tallest buildings, New York.

“In Russia, trucks are small. In U.S.A., trucks are big. It’s my little dream,” said the man, who hails from the North Caucasus region.

He mentioned movies and cartoons like Tom and Jerry and Ace Ventura. His all-time favourite actor, he said, is Jim Carrey, not realizing he was Canadian-born until a reporter pointed it out mid-interview.

Staggering statistics 

When it comes to Russians crossing the southern U.S. land border, the latest statistics are staggering.

There could be more than 60,000 Russian citizens encountered by U.S. border agents this year if the pace holds up from recent months — that’s triple last year’s level and more than 60 times the pre-pandemic rates.

The Russians who spoke to CBC News explained why they arrived at this specific spot. It’s a dusty patch of land, next to an old piece of border wall, inside U.S. territory. It’s near irrigated fields that produce so many of the vegetables 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 you can apply for asylum in the U.S. on one condition — you must first manage to set foot on U.S. soil.

Asylum-seekers in recent years have been getting turned away at regular border checkpoints before crossing the international boundary. 

Volunteer Fernando Quiroz, looks at the U.S.-Mexico border fence in San Luis. (Jason Burles/CBC)

So now they’re looking for irregular paths in, like this one, where criminal gangs run rampant, frequently robbing, raping and kidnapping mid-journey. 

Several migrants from other countries alleged, in interviews with CBC News, jaw-dropping abuses against them by Mexican police officers, like theft and sexual assault.

But these Russians, on this day, fared better.

They described hassle-free journeys; several having also used Dubai as a transit point to Mexico City.

California, New York, Canada?

Next they’ll settle in different parts of the U.S. — California, Chicago and New York City were three destinations people mentioned.

Some describe Canada as a possibility if things don’t work out in the U.S. But Burkhanov said he’d prefer, for once in his life, to live somewhere warm.

WATCH | Fleeing to America:

Russians flee war via Mexico-U.S. border

A skyrocketing number of Russians are seeking asylum in the U.S. by entering the country on land, through Mexico.

The Jim Carrey fan echoed the sentiment. 

While he’d consider Canada, because, he said, its economy is strong, he grew up in a frigid mountain climate and wants something different.

“I like hot,” he said.

Their asylum cases could last years.

Asylum is granted to people persecuted for their race, religion and political opinion. 

It’s unlikely that references to Ace Ventura and big trucks would be the cornerstone of a successful case, but Russian applicants have higher-than-average success rates. 

In asylum claims decided last year, more than half of Russians won their case, better than applicants from most other countries, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. 

But a record-smashing backlog of cases also means it takes nearly five years to adjudicate the average application, according to a Syracuse University research centre. 

What’s the mood in Russia?

Asked about the mood in their homeland, the Russians struggled to assess it. That includes how much support there is for the war.

The father who complained about his kids’ school curriculum blurted out a gut reaction: “Ninety-nine per cent [support it]. Because 99 per cent there are crazy people.”

But he acknowledges it’s more complicated, when asked whether that supposedly solid support is, maybe, a mirage, driven by coercion. 

“If you be quiet, you stay safe,” he said.

Burkhanov’s own analysis is that opposition to the war is growing in Russia, but is banished from the public sphere.

The aspiring trucker shares that assessment, but says it’s hard to truly gauge public opinion. 

“I don’t know, really,” he said. “More and more people in Russia [do] not support the war. But nobody says it.” 

For what it’s worth, a more independent-minded pollster in Russia reported late last year that about half of Russians supported the Ukraine war.

Meanwhile, thousands of Russians are arriving every month. 

One volunteer who brings food and water to the makeshift migrant camp outside Yuma says he’s witnessed it with his own eyes.

“Every day it’s what we see normally now,” said Fernando Quiroz, who volunteers with the Arizona California Humanitarian Coalition.

“Russians, and Georgians, are coming across in this location.”

In an ideal world, he said, these asylum-seekers should be allowed to apply at regular checkpoints.

But he blamed a broken U.S. immigration system for forcing people to improvise their way into made-up, non-legal routes like this one.

This path, at least, is on flat land. It’s better than the murderous mountain passes to the east, long notorious for inflicting tragedy on lost travelers.

Crossing near Yuma is “easy,” he said.

“I’m glad that they do cross here. … They’re not crossing dangerous terrain.”

It takes a few hours for U.S. border agents to come round up the Russians. They’re loaded onto vehicles and taken to detention centres, where they’re processed, then released.

Their first morning in America is over. It’s unclear how many more they’ll have here, as they move on from the desert, to locations east, west and north — their final destination: to be confirmed.

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