Escaping Russia for the United States, via Mexico

Michael Masri, who fled Putin’s oppression to claim asylum in the West, tells his story

Escaping Russia for the United States, via Mexico
U.S. Border Patrol agents approach the body of a migrant allegedly from Russia who drowned while trying to cross the U.S.-Mexico border. (Guillermo Arias/AFP via Getty Images)

By Michael Masri, as told to Will Neal.

Estimates of the number of people fleeing Russia since the launch of Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine vary widely, from hundreds of thousands to several million. More clearly known is that some have made for Central Asia, or Georgia and Armenia, where lax visa systems have provided temporary reprieve for Russians to apply for residency within the European Union.

Others have traveled much farther. In 2022, more than 23,000 Russian nationals attempted to enter the United States via the southern border with Mexico, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection data, representing a fourfold increase on the year preceding the war. Russians seeking refuge along the Mexico route use channels on the Telegram messaging app to locate Russian- and Uzbek-speaking smuggling networks operating in Turkey and Central America, who facilitate their moves, according to international nongovernmental organizations. In 2020, there were only 467 cases of Russians trying to cross into the U.S.

Having initially suspended deportations to Russia in the wake of the invasion, President Joe Biden’s administration quietly resumed its former position in March, around the same time that the number of Russian entries reached a record high of 30,500. The Russian influx has contributed to the growing number of different nationalities seeking refuge in the U.S. — which, despite various border crossing restrictions, peaked last year.

Although it’s not clear at this stage whether any Russian nationals have in fact since been forced to vacate the country, the vast majority of new arrivals will, in all likelihood, face either imprisonment or rapid deployment to the Ukrainian front line on their return.

New Lines spoke with Michael Masri, a young man from St. Petersburg who staked everything on a dangerous crossing through the Texas desert at the height of summer last year, about his journey and fear of retribution from the Putin regime should his U.S. asylum claim fail.

This is his story.

War begins and the world collapses. I go to the protests in St. Petersburg. I remember when opposition leader Alexei Navalny returned, and how huge it was. You told yourself your opinion was worth something then, with 50,000 people out in Palace Square. Tonight, Feb. 24, when something truly awful is happening, there are just a few hundred.

Maybe people are scared. Maybe they don’t give a shit. There are cops everywhere. They outnumber us and they start making arrests. They detain me too. I know at that moment I can’t be here any more. I can’t be in Russia. These aren’t my values, it’s not my moral code.

We leave on March 7. The week before the flight, it’s like I’m drowning. Every day, deeper into the water. The Federal Security Service (FSB) pulls a few of our friends who leave from the lines. “Why are you leaving?” they ask. “Give me your phone.” Any group chats, Instagram posts. Anything to keep you there, anything to draft you. When we make it to Georgia, there’s relief, but still, prices are skyrocketing. Rent, food, everything, because of the number of people who are coming. The Georgians were at war with Russia too. They ask why we’re here, why we left, why we didn’t fight for our freedoms.

How has it come to this? You remember how it was in the late 2000s: Hollywood actors came to Moscow to promote their movies, there were flights from even the smallest cities to European capitals. Steve Jobs presented [President Dmitry] Medvedev with the first iPhone. There was stealing, there were detentions. There was Chechnya, South Ossetia, but there was hope. Perhaps we were fools, not seeing the whole picture.

I’ve never really traveled. Just once, back to Syria, where my father is from, around 15 years ago. My mother’s half Ukrainian. She’s in the Netherlands now. My other relatives have had difficulty immigrating to Europe in the past. Our entire family, fucked by Putin.

By the time I head back to St. Petersburg in April to sell my coffee shop, I know I’m going to the United States. One of my uncles is there, in New Jersey. Many of my friends stayed in Georgia, even though they’re afraid to speak Russian in public, and with all the graffiti on the walls telling them to leave. They stayed because it’s close to Russia. Because they hope things will calm down, and that one day they will go home. For me there is no going back. The United States is a nation built by immigrants. It’s the only country in the world with this level of freedom. I know it has its problems, but at least you have your freedom. You have that.

I leave for good that August. For three months, it is all I think about. Then I’m actually going and it’s like something burns out. I feel nothing. In Beslan, on the edge of Russia right near the border with Georgia, a guy drives us from the airport to the border, six of us in the van. Two Ukrainians, both from Donetsk. The FSB holds them for three hours at the border. “Nothing special,” the driver says. They do this every day. It’s hard to describe the kind of pressure they put on you, what an interrogation is actually like. They make you feel like a terrorist, telling you that anything you’ve done because of your values can be treated as a terrorist act, that you can go to jail for having done something so unimaginably wrong. Interesting guys, Russian authorities. I hope they die in agony.

I stay in Tbilisi for three days, then Istanbul to Bogota. From Mexico City, I head north. There’s a guy who meets me at the airport. “If the cops grab us,” he says, “you don’t know me.” They’re all over the city, toting machine guns in pickup trucks and bulletproof vests. You don’t want them to stop you. The others I’ll travel with, it’s not even legal for them to be in Mexico. They’ll be robbed and deported if they’re caught. Some have saved their entire lives for this. They get only one shot.

The guy takes me to an apartment building where another guy is waiting. There’s always another guy. Every step, it’s a different person taking you. You start to grasp the scale of it, this system for smuggling people the cartels have built.

Around 30 inside, from all over Latin America. It feels like the houses for the poor in Syria: painted walls, concrete, a kitchen, a freezer. The toilet is just a hole. You can’t leave. You can’t do anything, you have nothing. No internet, sat there with people you can’t talk to because they don’t speak English and you, you don’t speak Spanish. So I do nothing. I play solitaire on my phone. We sleep on the bare floor.

We wait. Four, maybe five days. Then, one night, we’re taken and drive five hours to a new house, a new guy. The day we leave the second house, it’s almost dusk. We drive from the city and soon it’s just one big desert, leaving the highway down a dirt track. We get out of the car at the end of the dirt track and there’s a footpath through the bushes. We’re winding all over the place. Perhaps there are patrols. We climb through barbed wire, holes cut through metal fences, cutting ourselves. By the end of the first night, my boots are swimming with blood.

We come to the river. There’s a feeling someone is already watching us as we make our way up the bank. Single file. Everyone’s afraid to be last. If you’re last you get lost and if you’re lost, nobody’s coming back for you. Where the water’s shallow we undress and put our clothes and our backpacks in trash bags. We cross, river up to our chests. You have insane thoughts. Now the crocodiles, now the parasites. On the far side it’s steep, but we’ve made the crossing. We’re in Texas. We’re in the United States.

We walk for hours. It’s still dark and there are bushes, rocks, cactuses all around. There’s sand and needles but the ground is strong. You have no idea where you are, not a clue. You’re just somewhere, nowhere. They feed us. A packet of tuna that looks like cat food, an apple. Some drink with like 100 calories per quart. I’m 6 foot, more than 200 pounds.

At dawn the coyote — that’s what they call them, the smugglers, in Mexico — finds a bush and pulls everyone over. “You here,” he points, “you there.” He takes some branches and lays them on top of the shrubs. The sun rises. You try to rest but you can’t sleep when it’s 40 degrees (104 Fahrenheit) on the ground. You’re sweating, soaking wet. It’s quiet and sounds carry. Bushes moving with the wind. Drones buzzing overhead every hour. You don’t think about it. You focus on not dying in the heat.

The sun goes down and you’re still wet and suddenly it’s fucking cold. Seven hours of walking. The landscape doesn’t change but the second night we’re crossing one of the ranches. We’re trespassing, and in your head you know these people, they have guns. These people have a lot of guns and if they see you, they’ll shoot you. They’ll look out and think, Oh hey, narcotraffickers, and they’ll shoot you and that’ll be it. Because they can do that. The law is on their side.

On the third night, we make it to the highway. One of the guys takes a shit nearby and I try to sleep but the whole place, it just stinks like shit the entire time we’re waiting. The car arrives and we climb into the back. There are no seats and we lie down because the cops might see us. I lie down in the back and, for the first time in a long time, I feel good. We’re driving along the highway and I can see the highway and I’m thinking: “This is almost over.”

We’re on the road about 10 minutes before the lights come on blue and red behind us. The police are in pursuit. The driver leaves the tarmac, tries to escape through a chain-link fence. It’s lightweight and the van just blasts through it. We travel maybe 50 yards. There are huge bushes and eventually the car stops.

When the officers arrive the others are already gone. By this point I’ve climbed into the front. Sitting in the passenger seat, I throw my hands out of the window. “Guys, I’m Russian,” I say. “I’m here for asylum.” They tell me, “Yeah, but do you want to stop the fucking car?” I realize it’s just rolling into the desert at 2 mph. I’m in shock.

They take me and I sit in the back of the police pickup truck. “You’re our first Russian,” they tell me. “Why didn’t you run with the others?” they ask. The truth is I didn’t have time to think about what if I stayed, what if I didn’t, what the officers would do, what they’d say. It’s weird for me but for them, it’s just Tuesday, nothing special. I smoke and one of them says: “When I served in Syria all the Russian guys smoked rolling tobacco too.” My father is Syrian, I tell him. No way, they reply. We joke about it.

At the station they take my photo. They take my fingerprints and then they take me to the cell. After a while, a new detainee comes in and he speaks English and he tells me, “Oh, you must be the Russian.” I am confused, and I ask if I know him. “No no,” he says. “Just they’re still laughing out there.”

There’s no sleep at the detention center. It’s one big cell with a bunch of people, with rubber mattresses and rescue blankets. The light’s always on and there are no clocks and everybody’s on a different time. Detainees are coming and going and always talking. Once in three days you get to shower. Over my stay, I shower three times. The Latino guards are the harshest, screaming and banging their truncheons on the bars.

An FBI agent comes to interview me. He asks me what I am doing here, how I arrived here. We talk about my father, what I think of the war in Syria. When he leaves, he tells me another guy will be here soon, and when the other guy comes he tells me they couldn’t find my clothes or my bag. In my bag was my phone and on the phone is the number for my uncle. He tells me if I can’t find the number for my guarantor, someone who will formally take custody of me so that I can leave the detention facility, I will eventually be deported.

Nine days and I’m taken to another facility, where there are childish paintings on the walls, like a kindergarten. They’re kind. They’re so kind, the staff at this place. You can’t even imagine them treating people like this. People who break the law and enter the country illegally. In Russia they’d catch you and beat you, hold you god knows where. Nothing like this.

I have to find a way to contact my uncle. There’s a phone at the facility and I call literally every Russian number I can remember. There’s no answer and at first I don’t understand why and then of course I realize. It’s just a robot, collect calling in English from a detention facility thousands of miles away. I imagine my grandmother, and how she must have been confused.

Eventually, one of the other detainees gets his wife on the outside to get hold of my mother. By this point, it’s been 14 days. The last message, me heading into the desert. I get on the phone to her and I break down. I just fucking cry. Two weeks, you’re nowhere and no one can tell you what’s going to happen. You’re just waiting, and then something does happen. And that, that’s a good feeling.

I don’t remember the first month after I arrived at my uncle’s place. We’d never really met before, maybe once in Syria. It was cold to start with, and I slept for a long time. I slept and I tried to adjust to where I was. Suburban New Jersey, not the Texas desert. Only now, after almost a year, I’m filing my asylum claim. If my case fails, there will be a five-year ban on trying again.

There are things I understand now. Life is not an easy thing. At that detention center, there are 2,000 new arrivals every day. And there is just one detention center. You think about the number of people trying to find a better life. Venezuelans, Cubans, Afghans, all trying to escape their shitty governments. We lived in a tiny circle in St. Petersburg. We thought the whole world was like us. Good people, even though we had our problems. It’s hard to explain, but you realize what you’re capable of, once you know how small you are.

I cannot go back. I can’t. Every day, people are arrested for nothing. One girl, she’s facing 10 years for replacing price tags with the number of bombs dropped on Kyiv on the first day of the invasion. Ten years for replacing a fucking price tag.

I think about her all the time. When I speak about it, I feel like I’m drowning again. What they’ve done to Ukraine, what they’ve done to Russia. It’s the worst crime imaginable.

Everything is just sadness.

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