About a year ago, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) paused deportation flights to Ukraine, Russia, and several other European countries on the basis of the “ongoing humanitarian crisis” in Ukraine. But at some point in March 2023, the Guardian revealed that the Biden administration had discreetly resumed deportations to Russia. There has been no clear commentary from ICE on the resumption nor a specific known date on which deportations restarted.
The vast majority of Russian migrants currently attempting to enter the United States left Russia to avoid being drafted and experiencing (and contributing to) the violence of Russia’s war on Ukraine. US Customs and Border Protection reported that around 26,580 Russians have tried to cross the southern border since October 2022, shortly after President Vladimir Putin’s partial military mobilization was announced. This is compared to the 467 Russians encountered at the southern border in fiscal year 2020. Many fled with an understanding that their country “was doing something wrong,” turning to the United States as an escape from participating in this violence. An informal network of “travel tips” posted on social media and messaging services and spread by word-of-mouth led them to the border.
Yet, the Biden administration is now beginning to deport Russian individuals on the basis that they are not meeting the criteria for a “credible fear” determination needed to qualify for asylum. During credible fear interviews, immigration officers examine whether there is a “significant possibility” of persecution or torture if an asylum seeker is sent back to their county, and some officers have denied that Russian migrants’ fears of being drafted meet that standard.
The policy turn to put people avoiding Putin’s draft back within reach of the Russian army is as mystifying on a strategic level as it is on a human level.
According to a lawyer with knowledge of these cases, the rationale seems to be that fear of conscription is not enough to qualify for asylum if, for example, an individual had not been visited or threatened by the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) or the Russian military. But this standard is not consistently applied, as other officers recently determined the fear of being drafted as a valid claim to asylum. Further, Nicholas McKee, a lawyer with the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project who represents a number of Russian asylum-seekers, some of whom are currently in ICE detention, told me, “Just because some haven’t been visited by the FSB doesn’t mean they are not going to be. These are Russian men at every corner of the country whose doors are going to be knocked on. There’s no way these people won’t be approached, won’t be on the FSB list.”
Indeed, the Russian government has taken steps to ensure that men — including any anti-war dissidents deported by the United States — will eventually be sent to the frontlines as part of Putin’s expanded draft. Since the start of the war, Putin’s authoritarian regime has taken various steps to bolster his brutal war mobilization. Most recently, Russian lawmakers voted to enforce an electronic draft system to make it nearly impossible for men to avoid conscription and prohibit men from leaving the country after receiving the summons.
“They’ll be going right back into the meat grinder,” McKee told me. If they are deported, the Russian government will have their names and identification information. These men could be forcibly conscripted anywhere, at any time, including at the airport as they are let off their deportation flight. If imprisoned for their dissidence when forcibly returned to Russia, the Russian army could grab them from prisons.
THE CRUELTY OF US IMMIGRATION
The policy turn to put people avoiding Putin’s draft back within reach of the Russian army is as mystifying on a strategic level as it is on a human level. Russians who refuse to lend their lives to a horrific, illegal invasion and have traveled halfway across the world amid unimaginable circumstances to avoid fighting in Ukraine are an asset in Ukraine’s struggle — their actions starve Putin’s war machine. The more people evade Putin’s draft, the more likely Ukrainian independence will be preserved, and fewer people will die for Putin’s imperial ambitions.
Early in the conflict, the Biden administration appeared to understand this. Shortly after Putin announced what he called Russia’s “partial mobilization,” the White House said that it “welcome[s] any folks who are seeking asylum” from Putin’s draft. Many Russians fled to the United States, believing they would not be deported. The reversal of Biden’s policy will not only impact Russians in the United States and at the southern border but also inform the informal network supporting migrants’ trajectories from Russia. Just as it led them to escape from Russia, the network will also warn of the restrictive US immigration conditions fueling deportation.
Russians without permanent legal status in the United States are now facing a very sudden uncertainty about their futures. “They’re freaked out,” Attorney McKee said about his clients, two of whom, Sergei and Maksim, have gained the media’s attention for their brave journey crossing the Pacific Ocean in a fishing boat after Russian authorities knocked on their doors to conscript them. “The dread looming for a lot of these people is very real.”
To Russians who fled the draft with the promise of being sheltered from deportation and have refused to become accessories in Putin’s violence, the Biden administration’s inexplicable policy reversal is an abandonment. They have come to avoid a war in a place that once promised them reprieve but are met with life-threatening scrutiny that has resulted, for many, in detention and deportation. The United States is responding to people seeking peace by forcing them on a war-bound trajectory to Russia.
The deportations resumed abruptly and without notice, leaving immigration attorneys like McKee startled. “For lack of a better word, it’s bullshit,” McKee said to me as we concluded our interview. “We’ve set up a pseudo-trap in which people risk their lives to come to the US and then get the rug pulled from under them at any second.”
Of course, the situation McKee describes is hardly unique. Deporting Russians fleeing Putin’s draft is a particularly egregious example of the failed US asylum system since welcoming them would be both the humane thing to do and would hasten a just end to the war in Ukraine. But getting the rug pulled from under you by US immigration policy is an experience people from all over the world have far too often.
As McKee says, dehumanization, detention, and deportation are threats faced by all kinds of people attempting to exercise their basic right to asylum in the United States, “whether you are Mikhail, Miguel, or anyone else.” It shouldn’t take a war in Ukraine to get Washington lawmakers to fix the asylum system, but the plight of Russians escaping Putin’s draft is another reason for them to get to work.
Raimy Khalife-Hamdan is a Scoville Peace Fellow at Win Without War Education Fund.