The wave of political emigration from Russia is moving in all directions, one of which is the United States. But not everyone has visas, so a certain route has been increasingly gaining popularity: Russians fly to Mexico (where a visa is not required), and then cross the US border and surrender to migration officers. Thus, hundreds of people have already moved to the United States, many with their families, and some have already spent more than a year in US prisons awaiting legalization.
The Insider spoke with a number of refugees and found out what made them choose such a difficult route, why they did not want to live in Russia and what the life of a refugee is like in the United States.
Alexander Leontiev, a Tyumen activist
I was a volunteer for the Navalny team in Tyumen and opposed reforms to the local garbage collection - the authorities wanted to redistribute the market and raise tariffs. In January 2019, they detained me at one of the rallies and took me to the police station, did not release me for three days, did not give me food, took my phone, interrogated me without a lawyer and threatened they would put me in jail. The court ordered a fine of 18,000 rubles. Of course, I did not agree with that and began writing complaints to various authorities. Then the threats began. A few months later, in May, a man in civilian clothes approached me near my house and told me to retract all my complaints, otherwise I might get in trouble. At that time, I had not thought about emigration. On the contrary, I filed a new complaint with the court, and my wife and children and I decided to go to Mexico on vacation. When we were in Cancun, friends and family said the state security people were looking for me - they called my parents' home, they even stopped my friends on the street. That's when we decided not to return.
The state security people were looking for me — they called my parents' home, stopped my friends on the street. At that point we decided not to return
But it is one thing to live in a resort in Mexico, and another to stay for a long time and enroll children in school. Pretty soon my wife and I decided to try to get to the USA. We found thematic chats and forums online, got in touch with people from the States, and started selling cars at the same time. We did not have American visas, and in order to get to the United States, we had to cross the border and ask for political asylum. We bought tickets to the US border town of Tijuana and flew there.
But surprisingly, it turned out that to cross the border, one had to sign up in a queue and wait several months. Then we queued up in the neighboring town of Mexicali, which is only 150 km from Tijuana. Another five Russian-speaking families were waiting in line at the same hotel with us.
All in all, anyone can cross the border. The main question is what will happen next. It goes like this: at the border, you come up to the officer, give him your passport and say: «I am afraid to return to my homeland and ask for political asylum.» You are immediately detained; they can even handcuff you. It didn't happen in my case, thank God. After that, the migration service conducts an interrogation, takes your fingerprints, and sends you to a special detention center - a large room with partitions. Men and women are held separately, women with children are also held separately.
People can spend from several days to several months there. We were lucky, we spent only four days there. My wife and I were interrogated several times separately, and her interrogations took place at night, probably to confuse her or take her by surprise. For example, they asked me: “Who are you, what are you running from, how did you get here, who helped you get here? Have you any relatives in America? Who stayed in Russia? Which state are you going to?» It all depends on the officer who conducts the interview - it can be a friendly conversation, or it can be a tough interrogation.
It is also very important that the refugee has a sponsor in the United States. When we were still in Mexico, we found a pastor of one of the churches in Sacramento, who vouched for us and was ready to meet us and help us get our first living quarters. Therefore, when, four days later, we were released from the other side of the border, we went straight to him. In addition, there are many Russians in California, and it was easier for us to fit in.
I remember the day, July 21, when we were released on the other side of the border and shown where the nearest bus stop was. We rode to Sacramento. However, after entering the country without a visa you get the deferred action status, and your case is sent to court which decides on whether to grant asylum. My trial has already been postponed several times due to the pandemic.
For now, I live with a tracking bracelet on my leg and report to my migration officer every two weeks. Only with his permission can I travel out of state. I don't have a work permit either. But I hope the trial will finally take place this year and we will receive the status. So far, I've hired a lawyer who is collating the entire package of documents in my case.
I live with a tracking bracelet on my leg and report to my migration officer every two weeks
In general, I have not heard that any Russians are being deported. Yes, there is a high rejection rate for Mexicans and people from Latin America. Russians, on the other hand, are very much welcomed. A lot of people from Belarus and Kazakhstan travel the same way as we do.
Alexander Klimanov, a Tomsk activist
In 2015, I was told I was targeted by the security agencies, and they were going to «put me away». I lived in Tomsk and managed to work on various election campaigns; I was the chairman of the local branch of the Union of Right Forces party, then built a cell with the Right Cause, was a non-party activist. In 2011-2012, I was one of the organizers of the protests: we took to the streets with the communists, Solidarity, Parnas, all wearing white ribbons. I helped the local Golos movement a lot in monitoring the elections. I was a member of the electoral commission with a decisive vote. I myself organized opposition rallies in the city by filing applications on my own behalf.
But at some point, I became disillusioned with the peaceful protest and began to write various posts on social networks, which the authorities, if they so desired, could try to interpret as calls for prohibited actions. Therefore, when in early May of 2015 I was told a criminal case was being prepared for me, with one of my acquaintances, blogger Vadim Tyumentsev, having been already arrested by that time, I did not wait long, packed my bag and literally two weeks later flew to Kiev <Vadim Tyumentsev was sentenced to 5 years in prison under Article 282 of the Criminal Code - incitement to hatred or enmity; he was released in 2019 - The Insider>.
But I did not stay in Kiev, I went to Odessa and began working at the headquarters of the politician Mikhail Saakashvili, who at that time became the governor of the Odessa region. I worked there for almost six months. Even though I worked in the administration, Ukraine did not give me legal status – I was told to obtain refugee status according to the general procedure, by renouncing Russian citizenship, and to hand in all the documents. If I had done that, how would I have been able to go to work?
All in all, I did not want to be left without documents. At the same time, I saw that the country itself was not ready for drastic changes. Friends told me to «go somewhere else.» I looked at the world map and wondered where I should go. And then I read the story of a man who tried to get to America across the Mexican border, although he failed and was sent back.
I have always liked the United States, I have always dreamed of building America in Russia. But I did not have a US visa and I could not get one in Ukraine. So, I decided I would go to America by using the «Mexican» way. By that time, I had almost no money left, I had worked for Saakashvili as a volunteer, for free. Therefore, I sold my Niva car, which remained in Tomsk, and bought a ticket to Cancun with my last money. There are 4,600 kilometers from there to the US border, and at first, I thought of going there by bus. But I was dissuaded - the north of the country near the US border is unsafe and run by drug cartels. As a result, I spent my last money on a low-cost airline ticket and got off the plane with $160 in my pocket. It was December 2, 2015.
From the airport, I immediately went to the United States border, came up to the officer and said a phrase I had memorized on the plane: “I’m a Russian oppositionist. I need political asylum in the United States «; at that point, my English was at the «mother-father» level. The officer just shrugged his shoulders and pointed to a huge line that stood in front of the border. I was surprised, I thought only I alone was such a refugee, but it turned out there was a whole bunch of people there. For the most part, the refugees were from Latin America and Africa. People were sent in in groups. But as I wore a military-style outfit, I made a poker face and just pushed ahead. Within an hour, I was able to get to the checkpoint again.
I was detained, like everyone else who was asking for political asylum. They made me change clothes - took away my belt, laces, tactical pants, took all the items from my pockets and sent me to a cell to wait. I found myself in a room of about 30 m², in which 30 people were sitting. We could sleep only on iron bunks or foam rugs. In the middle of the night, I was summoned for interrogation. They asked me who I was, why I got there.
I found myself in a room of 30 square meters, where 30 people were sitting. In the middle of the night, I was summoned for interrogation
On the third day I was transferred to a nearby prison, where there was nothing at all, no basic necessities even. We were given burritos to eat and water to drink, and a week later we were transported to a large prison near San Diego. There, all the newcomers were given some things - brushes, toothpaste, and were given prison robes to change into. I thought that was it. But it turned out it was just another transit point, and two days later we were taken to a place where the migration court was supposed to consider my case. In my case, it was in New Jersey.
First, we were taken to Arizona, put on a charter plane, quite an ordinary one, albeit a bit shabby. What distinguished us from a usual flight was that everyone was wearing chains - on the belt, on the legs, on the arms. And at no time were they taken off. It was terribly inconvenient, because it was in the winter and those who had put on jackets felt too hot, and those who hadn't, too cold.
I had crossed the border in California to have my case heard there. But it turned out the authorities, in order not to create congestion, distributed immigration cases throughout the country. A friend of mine ended up in Denver, his wife someplace else. In New Jersey, I was held in two more prisons - first at the Delaney Hall Correctional Facility, and then at the Essex County Federal Penitentiary. The latter turned out to be a real criminal prison, in which out of 4500 prisoners, only 800 were migrants, and the rest were under criminal charges.
The volunteers found lawyers for me, and we began to prepare for the immigration court. My case was 400 pages long. I got a very tough and meticulous judge from Texas. He knew literally everything; my entire file was before him marked with multi-colored stickers. The hearing itself was held by videoconference - I was in prison, my lawyers were in one place, the judge was in another. It was 2016, Zoom meetings hadn't gone mainstream yet.
All in all, on August 22, 2016, the judge ruled in my favor, and I was granted political asylum. But in total, I spent almost nine months in custody. Now I still have political refugee status – it is called a «white card» or Form I-94 with an indefinite validity period. I've applied for a green card, but I can live here, work and move around the country anyway.
In total, I spent almost nine months in custody
During my life in the United States, I tried a variety of jobs - at a construction site in Pennsylvania, as a hotel clerk. But I've always wanted to work for Elon Musk's companies. So, I joined the Aerospace Academy in Los Angeles and graduated with a major and an aerospace license. Even when I was a student there, I was hired by a laboratory in Oregon, where I had a job of testing Boeing aircraft engines. A year later, a Tesla factory that produced lithium-ion batteries responded to my resume.
Until recently, I was homeless. Now, with a good salary, I bought myself a car, a Mustang convertible, and rented a house. But there was no career growth. So, I left the factory and launched my own startup, Vasyugan Aerospace. With a small team, we are developing electric 6×6 all-terrain vehicles, based on which it will be possible to create heavy-duty civilian and military equipment, luxury mobile homes, suitable for any off-road travel. Our final goal is to supply equipment to the Martian colonists when SpaceX's Starship establishes regular transport links with the Red Planet.
Igor Saushkin, Moscow businessman (name changed at the request of the interviewee)
I lived in Moscow until 2018. I was a businessman. It all started when the inspectors demanded a bribe. When I refused, it turned out the inspectors had relatives in law enforcement, and a criminal case was opened against me. The fact that I actively supported the opposition for a very long time and went to rallies did not add me points. I shared the views of Boris Nemtsov, and after his death, Alexei Navalny.
So, I was facing the risk of ending up in prison. I didn't want it at all, and my wife and I decided to emigrate. I began to gather information on which countries might be suitable for us. At first, I considered Singapore, but it turned out they granted extradition requests. European countries were also a no-go since all the information I needed was in different languages I did not know. Therefore, we decided to focus on English-speaking countries. We found a lawyer in the United States and discussed with him the possibility of flying to Mexico and surrendering at the US border.
Since at that time I was not sure I had not been put on the wanted list, my wife and I went to Belarus and prepared to fly from there. At Minsk airport, until the last moment I thought I might be detained at the border. But nothing happened, and we flew to Cancun. Three days later, we flew from there to Mexicali in the north of Mexico. We thought there would be fewer people in that small town and it would be easier for us to cross the border. But we were wrong. We had to deal with local corrupt border guards, they said I was not in their database [of legal immigrants], although my wife was in it. Actually, they were extorting $300 from us, but we just did not get it then.
Mexicali turned out to be the most dangerous place I had ever found myself in, with a very high crime rate. On the street, the sounds of sirens never ceased - either police cars or ambulances were always driving somewhere. It was simply dangerous to stay there. We took a car and drove to Tijuana. There were tourist areas, and some blocks looked really decent, but the city was also very dangerous. So, we observed precautions: we did not go out in the evenings, we constantly changed our place of residence so as not to become familiar with the locals.
In Tijuana, I had no problem getting in line at all, and about a month later we were at the border. The procedure was as follows: we were assigned to groups of ten, and two to ten of such groups crossed the border every day. If you came to the border without a visa as a refugee, you were supposed to notify the migration officer and ask for political asylum. I, too, was supposed to say that phrase, but no one asked me to do it because everyone understood who I was anyway.
My wife and I were detained and put on a small bus, which took us to another entrance on the US side. There my wife and I were separated and sent to a distribution center. After the search, I found myself in a small room three meters wide and fifteen meters long with benches along the walls. There were 25 more people there. In reality, only six people could fit on the benches lying down, and as a result, everyone else slept on the floor, and even near the toilet, which was right there. Most of them were Mexicans in very dirty clothes. It was very cold in the cell and the light was constantly on.
I spent five days there. Then I was taken first to Arizona, and from there by plane and bus to Mississippi. My wife was sent to California a few days later. She was luckier than me and was released on bail a month and a half later. I was denied bail 12 times. I ended up at the Detention Center for Migrants. Apart from us, petty criminals with short sentences of 3 to 4 months were also held there. They did various jobs - cooking, cleaning. There the migration service subjected each of the arrivals to extensive questioning, clarifying all the pertinent details: the person's identity, the country he's from, what threats he faced at home.
The questioning took several hours and was conducted under terrible conditions - in a cold cell with a concrete bench from which one is not allowed to get up. I remember it was very cold and completely unbearable to sit on that bench. Then I got very sick. But I saw the doctor only 10 days later during a scheduled check-up. My request for an examination by a nurse was somehow misplaced, and for medicine I had only mints which I got from Chinese migrants.
Detention center in Mississippi
Even getting hot water was a problem there. We heated it in microwaves, but we only had two for 120 people. We were given very little food, just so we wouldn't starve to death. As a result, in less than a month I lost 11 kilograms. After 30 days, I was sent to Louisiana. Our hands and feet were cuffed and chained as if we were dangerous criminals, and we were transported by bus, a journey which took several hours.
I ended up in a state penitentiary, where about 500 people were held. That prison turned out to be several times worse than the detention center: rusty iron bunks, high humidity, constant lack of fresh air. A cell measuring 12 by 15 meters contained 70 people. It was impossible to keep it clean, of course. The prisoners themselves cleaned it up for a fee of $1 per day. Basically, the Mexicans did the job, because the food was also bad, but you could buy noodles for 45 cents. There were also two microwave ovens there, and the prisoners always queued up in front of them - in the morning, in the afternoon, and at night. They were never turned off. The toilet and shower were just niches in the wall. You had to do your business in front of everyone else.
I spent 7.5 months in that prison. Then, my asylum trial began. It proceeded via video conferencing. I thought I had a lot of evidence and almost ironclad chances of winning. But the judge and the migration service officer were very biased and skeptical. They manipulated the evidence and in the end, I was denied asylum. But I decided I wouldn't give up and filed an appeal. I was transported to another prison for the duration.
I ended up in a federal prison in Mississippi, where 1,500 people were held. But conditions there were much better, at least the toilets were behind curtains. The consideration of the appeal was delayed but everybody understood it was likely to be in my favor. Then the migration service decided to release me on bail. Before that, I requested it 12 times - and my every request was denied.
I got out of jail in October 2020. All in all, if I had crossed the border illegally, I could have asked the for my release, but since I surrendered legally, only the migration service could release me. In total, I spent 1 year and 8 months in prison. The appellate court overturned the decision on my deportation and returned my case for a retrial. The second trial will take place in the fall, as will the continuation of my wife’s trial. Her case is being considered separately. Due to the pandemic, the hearings were postponed several times.
So far, I have no status, only a paper that I am registered with the migration service. Therefore, I do not have an official work permit. I live on what my wife earns, she is officially allowed to work. We live in Sacramento, where there's a large Russian-speaking community of nearly 100,000 people. And there are a lot of American people who simply help refugees find living quarters and things; it is very easy to get help here. You just need to step out of your comfort zone a little.
This text is also available in Russian