Numerous Russians attempting to escape conscription onto the Ukrainian battlefield have made perilous journeys to the United States, trusting in the Biden administration’s declaration that the U.S. would “welcome” those fleeing the war and their forced participation in it.
Instead of winning asylum, however, some of these men have been detained and, in at least one case, deported back to Russia, where they could be thrown into the fight against U.S.-armed Ukraine — into “the meat grinder,” as the U.S. secretary of State recently put it.
The U.S. has deported nearly 190 Russians since the beginning of October 2022, almost three times as many as were removed during the entire prior year.
Some Russian conscripts have refused to board deportation flights, forcing U.S. immigration officers to return them to immigration detention and legal limbo.
Three Russians the U.S. detained and sought to deport told The Times that certain abuse awaited them at home, where draft dodgers are subject to imprisonment or swift dispatch to front lines. The three Russians said they felt bewildered — betrayed, even — by the U.S. asylum system. The Times is withholding their identities because they fear retribution if they are returned to Russia.
“Death awaits me there if I go back,” said one Russian man in his 20s. He said he was slated to be deported but fainted when immigration officials loaded him onto the plane, which forced them to return him to detention.
Although Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky urged Russians who opposed the war to stay at home and fight to topple Russian President Vladimir Putin, the Biden administration has explicitly encouraged Russians who do not want to fight in Ukraine to seek asylum in the U.S.
“There are people out there in Russia who do not want to fight Putin’s war or die for it,” White House spokeswoman Karine Jean-Pierre said in September. “We believe that, regardless of nationality, they may apply for asylum in the United States and have their claim adjudicated on a case-by-case basis.
“We welcome any folks who are seeking asylum, and they should do that,” she said.
But Russians who have taken the U.S. up on that offer have quickly discovered that seeking asylum is not the same as winning it. The U.S. government’s willingness to help people who flee Russia — even if doing so undermines Russia’s war effort — is limited.
In some cases, the government has argued that being called up to serve in the Russian military is not alone sufficient grounds for asylum. Jennifer Scarborough, the lawyer for the three Russians The Times interviewed, has countered that they qualify for asylum because they did not want to be involved with the war for political reasons and would face unreasonable repercussions for refusing to serve.
“They could be deported back to a regime that is committing gross human rights violations,” she said. “I don’t understand how we are denying Russians at all.”
The number of Russians crossing the southern U.S. border surged in November and December, shortly after Putin, facing massive casualties among his troops, ordered up a fresh army mobilization and drafted up to 300,000 reservists.
Russians crossed the southern border more than 5,000 times in November and nearly 8,000 times in December, a major increase from earlier months.
More than 8 million Ukrainians have fled their country since Putin launched his invasion of the former Soviet Republic on Feb. 24, 2022. Their escapes have involved trains and commercial flights and massive assistance, and they have largely been welcomed in other countries.
By contrast, many of those fleeing Russia for the U.S. have used the same difficult and at times treacherous route that disfavored refugees from all over the world use. A flight from Dubai or Istanbul gets them to South America, where they continue on flights, buses and by foot northward, sometimes trekking through jungle, to reach Mexico and the U.S. border.
One man who spoke to The Times was picked up by immigration agents in December near Tecate. The man made the weeks-long journey to the U.S. with his younger brother.
The man fled Russia when his call-up notice arrived.
“Even in childhood, I understood that, for me, America was a symbol of freedom,” he said in a telephone interview from a detention center in Pennsylvania. “And yes, there was a dream to move here one day. Because during your entire life in Russia, it is difficult; you’re discriminated against at every turn.”
“I went through war,” the man said. “I know what this entails. I saw the war. And now they are trying to force me to bring this to Ukraine.”
Because of his membership in a minority group in Russia, the man likely had additional claims to asylum, experts say. (The Times is withholding the details of his minority status in order to protect his identity.) But he said he was not given a chance to adequately assert his asylum claims to the immigration processors who received him. Pauses for translation and the complexity of his history made it difficult to convey how dire his circumstances were, he said.
“Some people cried,” he said of fellow asylum applicants. “But I’ve seen war. I don’t have that kind of emotion anymore. Maybe I should have cried, I don’t know.”
His brother’s asylum application and appeal were denied so quickly that the younger man has already been deported back to Russia. There, the man says, his brother hides inside, unwilling to venture onto public streets, fearful that he will be captured and sent to the front if Russian authorities find him.
The older brother has been luckier. In August, U.S. officials agreed he could seek asylum in immigration court, Scarborough said. He can’t be deported while those proceedings are ongoing.
Another Russian man, who spoke to The Times from the ICE detention center in Louisiana where he spent seven months, said he fled his country after receiving a draft notice last fall. He said he did not want any part in fighting against a country that he called brotherly and where residents spoke essentially the same language that he does.
“I can’t say that I deeply understand geopolitics, but I believe that there are no benefits from this war for Russia: This is a pointless war,” the man said.
“This is a fratricidal war, so I doubly did not want to participate in it,” he said.
He said his mother supported his decision to flee Russia.
“She said she hoped to see me soon,” he said, knowing a reunion might never happen.
By the time he crossed the southern border in October — after taking a flight from Dubai to Mexico City — he was ready to claim asylum in the U.S. But he failed his initial asylum screening — he told the U.S. that he was fearful of mobilization — and an immigration judge ordered him deported.
“Fear of being conscripted into military service is not a protected ground,” the judge’s order read, according to court records the man’s attorney provided. “Russia is requiring persons to serve in the military ages 19-49 of all backgrounds. Laws pertaining to required military service ordinarily are not intended to punish Individuals on account of the protected grounds, which is the case here, but rather to form and maintain a military.”
The man was held in ICE custody from almost the moment of his arrival in the U.S., he said. His mother told him in one of their occasional telephone conversations that Russian officials had shown up to their door, looking for him. He told her that he was in a safer place now, despite it being a detention center with a deportation order looming.
ICE officials eventually sought to deport him, and in January they took him to the airport for a flight to Russia, he said. ICE officers took him to the airport, but he refused to get on the plane and was taken back to the detention center, he said.
Then, in May, his attorneys were able to get him released into the U.S. He can now pursue his asylum claim in immigration court.
Asked why Russians fleeing conscription don’t meet the standard for asylum, which is to demonstrate they have a legitimate fear of persecution or death, Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro N. Mayorkas would only defend the general process.
“The issue of credible fear, the determination of credible fear, is a very case-specific, individualized determination,” Mayorkas said during a recent appearance at the State Department. “Our very experienced asylum officers make those determinations based on the facts presented to them as well as their background information with respect to the country conditions.
“And so they evaluate the claims based on the people before them and the case that those individuals present.”
The Russian man whose fainting spell spared him from deportation fled his country last fall and crossed the U.S. border in December.
He told asylum officers that he could be drafted and forced into the war, something he desperately wanted to avoid. His fears were confirmed, he said, when his mother informed him that a draft notice had arrived. His attorney later provided the notice to U.S. officials.
His claim was also denied and an immigration judge ordered him deported.
While in detention, he has staged two hunger strikes to protest his planned deportation, he explained. He ended his most recent hunger strike in late April, he said, after he learned he would be force fed. He fears for his life in Russia should he be deported.
“I am now considered a deserter,” he said, adding he has heard rumors of deportees being “disappeared” — falling into the hands of Russian authorities, lost to their families.
Also in May, his attorney, Scarborough, got him a chance to present his asylum case to an immigration judge. He cannot be deported, she said, unless he loses in immigration court. He has yet to be released, however, though he will have a chance at paying a $20,000 bond, his attorney said. The family, she noted, does not have enough money to pay for the bond.
He said he wants the court to know that he is afraid to return to Russia.
“It is dangerous for me there,” he said.
In a statement, ICE said it was committed to enforcing immigration laws “humanely, effectively, and with professionalism.”
“ICE facilitates the transfer and removal of non-citizens via commercial airlines and chartered flights in support of mission requirements,” the agency spokesperson said. “ICE conducts removals to countries, including Russia, in accordance with country removal guidelines.”
Hannah Levintova contributed to this report.