TIJUANA, Mexico -- 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 of New York and other Democrats.
Blaine Bookey, legal director of the Center for Gender & Refugee Studies, was returning to San Diego from Tijuana when she saw the Ukrainian woman crying with her children, and looking “very uncomfortable."
The family had been denied the chance to seek asylum after being turned back because of a Trump-era order, known as Title 42, that was put in place to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
Schumer mentioned the Ukrainian family when calling for an end to use of Title 42 authority, which is named for a 1944 public health law.
“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."
The Homeland Security Department said it admitted the Ukrainian family “after we reviewed the facts of their case” and it continues to exempt “particularly vulnerable” people on a case-by-case basis.
Migrants have been expelled more than 1.6 million times since Title 42 was introduced in March 2020. The Biden administration has defended the order even as coronavirus cases have subsided.
The Ukrainian woman, who identified herself to reporters only as Sofiia, first tried entering the U.S. in a car with a relative earlier this week but was turned back, Bookey said. On Wednesday, she walked up to the port of entry and was stopped again before Bookey spotted her and tweeted what happened.
The next morning, Erika Pinheiro, litigation and policy director for Al Otro Lado, an advocacy group that was helping the family, said she received a call from Customs and Border Protection that the woman should pack her bags and be ready to leave on short notice. Hours later, she was told to return to the port of entry.
“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 Feb. 27, days after Russian troops invaded Ukraine. She went to Moldova, Romania and Mexico, arriving in Tijuana on Monday.
The woman said her family in the San Francisco area had urged her to come, saying they feared for her life.
“In any other case, I wouldn’t leave, I’m sure, because I have more family and friends over there (in Ukraine)," she said.
She 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.
Watching them cross into the United States was another Ukrainian, a 27-year-old woman who asked to be identified only as Kristina. She was still stuck on the Mexican side with her fiancé, a U.S. citizen.
Kristina fled to Poland but hotels and apartments were full. So she flew to Mexico where her fiancé met her to help her get into the United States.
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 in the United States to seek asylum due to difficulties flying them home. They must be on U.S. soil to claim protection, though, and authorities often block their path.
Kristina said she too walked up to the border on Wednesday and asked to be let in to seek asylum but like the family, she was turned away because of Title 42. The couple returned on Thursday and was hopeful when the family was let in but they were blocked again and given no explanation.
“They don’t listen to us,” Kristina said.
After spending five hours waiting Thursday, Kristina fainted, and was carried away by her fiancé, who said they were stressed and exhausted and were heading to a Tijuana hotel.
“Why can't they just talk to us too?" her fiancé said. “We don't know what to do."
Associated Press writers Ben Fox in Washington and Elliot Spagat in San Diego contributed.