Nailia Manzurina’s eyes filled with tears as she remembered the moment she and her two young sons had to separate from her husband in their native Russia.
“Praise God it was just temporary,” she said as she wiped away tears.
It was late September 2022 and emotions were high in Russia because President Vladimir Putin had just imposed the country’s first military draft since World War II. Social media videos showed mothers and wives wailing as their loved ones were dragged into the war in Ukraine. Young men rushed to neighboring countries in droves to avoid getting pulled into the fight.
Nailia’s husband, Mikhail Manzurin, 25, qualified for the draft but he disagreed with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. And he felt, very strongly, that he shouldn’t be forced to serve in the military against his will.
“I don’t want to kill (the) innocent people of Ukraine. They’re protecting their territories. They’re protecting their homes. And I don’t want to be a part of this invasion,” Mikhail Manzurin said.
Fearing Mikhail would be drafted, jailed or worse, the family decided to flee, embarking on a multi-country odyssey with their newborn, Philip, and toddler, Mark, that would take them through Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Dubai, Mexico and ultimately to the United States – all with the help of strangers.
They would become part of a vast wave of Russians seeking shelter from the war in the United States. Over the past six months, data posted by American border authorities shows that the number of Russian citizens they have encountered has nearly tripled: from 1,645 Russians in August 2022 (the month before Russia’s draft began) to 4,509 in January.
In total, nearly 22,000 Russians, including the Manzurins, have tried entering the United States through the country’s southern border since October 2022, the first full month after the draft was announced, according to the latest US Customs and Border Protection data.
‘I realized that my country was doing something wrong’
Before all this, the Manzurins say, they loved their life in Russia. The couple enjoyed parenting and Mikhail says he earned good money teaching English and Chinese at a tutoring center.
Then Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022.
“It was shocking,” Mikhail said. “I realized that my country was doing something wrong.”
Even though he knew it wasn’t safe to speak out, Mikhail says he expressed his disdain for the war on social media and from the pulpit of his Christian non-denominational church.
Mikhail says his boss forced him to quit his job because parents complained about his public anti-war stance. At that point, Mikhail says he transitioned to teaching languages online and life as they knew it continued despite the war.
But their world turned upside down in September 2022, when Putin imposed the military draft. Soon after, Mikhail says he kissed his wife goodbye and took a taxi to the border, where he hopped on a bus to Kazakhstan. The bus was packed with other young men who were also fleeing Russia, according to Mikhail.
“I was shaking,” Mikhail said.
When the bus crossed the border into Kazakhstan without incident, Mikhail says all the men onboard started cheering over their successful escape saying, “We did that!”
Nailia, 27, and their sons joined Mikhail a week later.
Word spreads that Russians are crossing the US southern border
Days after reuniting in Kazakhstan, the Manzurins traveled by train to Uzbekistan. There, they slept on the floor for more than a month in an apartment they shared with friends. And Mikhail continued to teach languages online to provide for his family. But Mikhail says he didn’t feel safe in Uzbekistan because the territory is a post-Soviet country.
“They can be friendly to Russia,” Mikhail said.
That’s when Mikhail says he learned, from some of his Russian friends, that they had entered the United States through the country’s southern border.
“They crossed the border from Mexico to the United States,” Mikhail said. “It happened to one family, then to another family and we started to pray.”
Mikhail put those prayers to work online, where he searched and found a US-based Christian non-profit organization named Practice Mercy Foundation.
Alma Ruth, the founder and director of the non-profit, says the Manzurins asked her for guidance and prayer. Ruth says she connected them with friends in Mexico City and Reynosa, a city in northern Mexico that borders Hidalgo County, Texas.
“Immigration is a life-or-death conversation and as people of faith, we choose life,” Ruth said. “We answered his call for help because it was the first time a young family traveling with infants contacted us for help from their region of origin.”
But Ruth says this wasn’t the first time she had seen Russians at the US southern border. She says that it’s a phenomenon she started seeing about two years ago, but back then the numbers were small.
According to US Customs and Border Protection data, there’s been a 4,560% increase in the number of Russians trying to enter the US, when comparing fiscal years 2020 to 2022 (the latest full year available).
In fiscal year 2020, 467 Russians were encountered at the US southern border, compared to 21,763 in fiscal year 2022.
Hundreds of Russians waiting in one northern Mexico town to enter the US legally
The Manzurins say they flew to Mexico through Dubai, because they learned from Russian friends that it increased their odds of entering Mexico without a problem. Indeed, the Manzurins arrived in Reynosa in late November and realized that as many as 700 Russians were waiting to enter the US legally.
Mikhail says many of the men had protested the war and some had been arrested for demonstrating. And they all had one thing in common: They were against the Russian war with Ukraine.
Pastor Hector Silva, who runs one of the largest migrant shelters in Reynosa, says most of the Russians he encountered were fleeing Russia’s military draft and that most of them have either entered the United States or have departed to nearby Matamoros, Mexico.
After 40 days of waiting in Reynosa, Mikhail says US immigration authorities allowed him and his family to enter the United States through something called humanitarian parole – which allows people who would otherwise be ineligible for admission to the US to enter the country for a temporary period of time for urgent humanitarian reasons.
In January, the Biden administration expanded a humanitarian parole program to include Cubans, Venezuelans, Nicaraguans and Haitians to provide them with a legal pathway to enter the US. As of January 27, more than 7,500 migrants with those nationalities had been approved to enter the US legally under the program. Russians were not a part of that program.
The Manzurins say they were processed by US immigration authorities at the Hidalgo, Texas, port of entry and given a notice to appear before a US immigration judge in July 2024.
The number of notices to appear issued to Russians by US immigration authorities has nearly quadrupled from August 2022 (the month before Putin issued the military draft) to December 2022 (the latest month available), according to analysis of government data by Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) at Syracuse University. In December 2022, 6,991 notices to appear in immigration court were issued to Russians, compared to 1,799 in August 2022, per TRAC.
Fear of deportation looms
Mikhail Manzurin says he was apprehensive about moving his family to America because Russian propaganda and people in Russia say Americans are individualists who care only about themselves, and who don’t like Russians.
“‘Nobody is going to care about you. So nobody is going to help you,’” Manzurin remembers he was told before he left Russia.
To Mikhail’s surprise, since his arrival to the United States, pastors and community members have provided his family with food, shelter, clothing and financial support.
Pastor Aaron Reyes of Practice Mercy and his family hosted the Manzurins in their home in Austin, Texas, for about a week starting at the end of January. Reyes says Americans have much to learn from the Manzurin’s story.
“Material possessions isn’t what gives us contentment,” Reyes said. “They (the Manzurins) have, in their journey, lived on very little and they have lived from day to day and from week to week being content, happy.”
Mikhail says his family will file for political asylum and his dream is that his boys will one day become US citizens and grow up free and safe.
And while the Manzurins say they have settled in a Russian-speaking Christian community in the state of Washington and feel safe from the tentacles of Russia’s military draft, their future in America remains uncertain. It will be up to US immigration courts to ultimately grant or deny them asylum.
“(That) is my biggest fear here in the United States, that they will deport us,” Mikhail said. “(That) they (US immigration authorities) will say, ‘Your case is not good enough to get political asylum.’”