Russians do not need visas to visit Mexico, unlike the U.S. Many fly from Moscow to Cancun, entering Mexico as tourists, and go to Tijuana, where they pool money to squeeze into cars they buy or rent. Adrenaline rushes as they approach San Diego’s San Ysidro border crossing, where about 30,000 cars enter the United States daily.

Maksim Derzhko calls it one of the most terrifying experiences of his life. A longtime opponent of Russian President Vladimir Putin, he flew from Vladivostok to the Mexican border city of Tijuana with his 14-year-daughter and was in a car with seven other Russians. All that separated them from claiming asylum in the United States was a U.S. officer standing in traffic as vehicles inched toward inspection booths, AP reports.

The emotions are “hard to put into words,” he says. “It’s fear. The unknown. It’s really hard. We had no choice.”

The gamble worked. After spending a day in custody, Derzkho was released to seek asylum with his daughter, joining thousands of Russians who have recently taken the same route to America.

Even before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine led to punishing sanctions from the U.S. and its allies, the United States was already seeing an increase in Russian asylum-seekers. More than 8,600 Russians sought refuge on the U.S. border with Mexico from August through January — 35 times the 249 who did so during the same period a year earlier. Nine in 10 used official border crossings in San Diego.

Migrants from other former Soviet republics follow the same route in lower numbers, though some authorities are now anticipating more Ukrainians. The U.S. admitted a Ukrainian family of four on humanitarian grounds Thursday after twice blocking her.

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