Tensions Over Belarus, Ukrainian Asylum Seekers, Democrats Strategize For Midterms : Up First Ukrainian officials fear Belarus may commit troops to the Russian invasion. Some refugees from the conflict are seeking asylum in the U.S. and encountering pandemic border restrictions. House Democrats met this week to discuss midterm election strategy.

Tensions Over Belarus, Ukrainian Asylum Seekers, Democrats Strategize For Midterms

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Russia is intensifying airstrikes in Ukraine, and Russian ground forces there are fanning out.


That's apparently in anticipation of striking Kyiv. And tensions are high at the border with Belarus.

FOLKENFLIK: I'm David Folkenflik.

ELLIOTT: I'm Debbie Elliott, and this is UP FIRST from NPR News.


FOLKENFLIK: Ukrainians fleeing the war have mostly sought refuge in Europe.

ELLIOTT: But some are seeking asylum in the U.S., raising questions about pandemic border restrictions.

FOLKENFLIK: Also, President Biden rallied fellow Democrats this week as the party heads toward the midterm elections later in the year.


PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: We know the fundamental change that shifts if we lose the House and Senate. The only thing I'll have then is a veto pen.

ELLIOTT: So stay with us. We've got the news you need to start your weekend.


ELLIOTT: Belarus is a staunch ally to Russia. It's a base for Russian attacks on Ukraine, but so far, we've not seen its own military forces enter the fight in a big way.

FOLKENFLIK: Yet over the past day, Ukrainian officials have raised the alarm on what they've called a, quote, "provocation." NPR's Tim Mak joins us from northwestern Ukraine near the Belarusian border. Hey, Tim.

TIM MAK, BYLINE: Hey there.

FOLKENFLIK: Tim, give us some more detail on what Belarus's role has been so far in the war between Russia and Ukraine.

MAK: Well, Belarus has been used as a staging ground for Russian attacks from both air and land but thus far has not joined in on the invasion itself. Now, studies from foreign think tanks have shown that Belarusians may not be happy with their government, and Ukrainian officials think the public wouldn't support such a move. I spoke to Vitaliy Koval. He's the governor of Rivne Oblast. That's a region in northwestern Ukraine. And he said he's even heard stories of Belarusian troops sabotaging themselves to avoid the possibility of an invasion.

VITALIY KOVAL: (Through interpreter) We are concerned about Belarus having troops on our borders and the possible attack. But we also know the Belarus army - they don't want to come here. They try to stop it any way it's possible. They cut their tires and their - break their machinery just not to go here.

MAK: It's also important to understand the geography of this area. In this oblast along the Belarusian border, it's very difficult terrain for offensive military operations with heavily wooded areas on each side of poorly maintained roads. So I spoke to Ihor Voronchenko. He's a senior Ukrainian military officer, and he gave me his assessment of the challenges that the Belarusian military would face.

IHOR VORONCHENKO: (Through interpreter) These roads are going to be hell. Left and right, it's mud. If you want to be drawn in the mud, please, you're welcome to. But this is our land. We are never going to let you have it.

FOLKENFLIK: And what about the provocation? Are Ukrainian government officials accusing Russia of staging what's called a false-flag attack?

MAK: Well, Ukrainian military and civilian officials are saying that around 2:30 local time on Friday, two Russian military aircraft took off from Belarus. The mayor of Rivne - again, in northwestern Ukraine - this man named Oleksandr Tretyak, he explains what happened next.

OLEKSANDR TRETYAK: Actually, this is a provocation from Russian and Belarusian side. Military Russian aircraft just entered to Ukrainian airspace and then throw down three bombs on - directly on border between Ukraine and Belarus. So this is, like, a provocation.

MAK: The Ukrainian government is saying that two Russian fighters conducted three airstrikes on the town of Kopany (ph) as a way of goading Belarus into the war. As of Friday, a senior U.S. official says there's no indication of Belarusian troops heading in. But there's this tension in the air here that wasn't here two days ago or even yesterday. And this has been a very fluid situation. Ukrainian officials have gone back and forth over the last week about whether they expect an invasion.

FOLKENFLIK: So let's widen out the lens. How are things looking elsewhere in Ukraine?

MAK: Well, air raid sirens are going off all across Ukraine as Russian bombardment of Ukrainian cities continue. Now, 2 1/2 million refugees have now left Ukraine for other countries seeking safety from just that, the bombardment. Polish cities are now swelling with hundreds of thousands of refugees, stressing local support systems. But in an overnight address, Ukrainian President Zelenskyy praised his citizens as, quote, "strong people of the steel country." That's a nod to how his military has been able to beat expectations of how the Russian military would perform.

FOLKENFLIK: That's NPR's Tim Mak in Ukraine. Tim, thanks.

MAK: Thanks so much.


FOLKENFLIK: Two and a half million people have now fled the conflict in Ukraine, according to the U.N. Most have taken shelter in nearby countries in Europe, but some are traveling all the way to the American border with Mexico and seeking asylum in the U.S.

ELLIOTT: Their applications are being complicated by a Trump-era restriction put in place early in the pandemic. Here to tell us more is Max Rivlin-Nadler, who joins us from San Diego. Good morning, Max.


ELLIOTT: I understand you have been to the border crossing between San Diego and Tijuana to try to find out more about these asylum-seekers. What did you find?

RIVLIN-NADLER: Yeah. So for weeks, as tensions rose between their respective countries, both Ukrainians and Russians have been coming to the San Diego-Tijuana border to try to reach asylum in the United States. This week, however, we saw the first asylum-seekers who had left during the war itself. One of those, a Ukrainian named Marina, came to Tijuana earlier this week after she had left her home, which is in a small city on the outskirts of Kyiv.

She had worked in a salon there and never believed that there would actually be a war between Ukraine and Russia. That's what she told me. She's a Russian speaker herself. But once she saw soldiers on the street and heard bombs at night, she described to me actually how the sky would glow pink with smoke. She knew that she had to leave with her two daughters. She went to the train station, and after an hour of trying to find a train that had room, got on the train to Hungary, where her kids had to sit on the ground and multiple adults crammed into each seat.

Once she got to Hungary, she took a flight to Munich, then Mexico City and a final one to Tijuana. There, she got in a car that drove past the customs checkpoint and into the United States. But her daughters and her are the lucky ones. Right now, each day, more and more Ukrainians are arriving in Tijuana looking for a way to safely enter the United States. I was on a street corner early Thursday morning near the border as a tired family of five from Lviv got into a cab looking for a place to spend the night in Tijuana while they figured out how to cross the border. So a city that's really already stressed with thousands of migrants seeking asylum is now receiving even more.

ELLIOTT: Now we mentioned this public health order that's been in place since the early days of the pandemic that bars asylum-seekers from entering the country. President Biden has not lifted that, despite political pressure to do so. How is that affecting the people who are trying to flee the war in Ukraine?

RIVLIN-NADLER: Yeah, so this is a Trump-era restriction known as Title 42 that prohibits asylum-seekers from entering the U.S. on public health grounds. The rule was put in place during the early part of the COVID-19 pandemic. And while migrants and their advocates had hoped that the Biden administration would quickly lift Title 42 once Biden took office, that hasn't been the case. This makes accessing asylum in the United States nearly impossible and incentivizes asylum-seekers to make dangerous attempts to enter the United States outside of ports of entry, so that includes hopping the border fence or crossing in remote areas of the desert, or in the case of many recent Ukrainian and Russian migrants, driving rented cars through initial checkpoints at the border. By doing so, they're entering the United States, meaning they're not subject to Title 42.

So it just sets up a really dangerous moment here on the border, where desperate migrants and border agents are now in a really untenable situation. It really feels kind of like something has to give, especially as a judge recently ruled that the Biden administration can no longer exclude unaccompanied children from being subject to Title 42, a move the Biden administration had done to ensure their safety.

ELLIOTT: So now we should also note that Title 42 is affecting asylum-seekers from all over the world, not just from the crisis in Ukraine.

RIVLIN-NADLER: Yeah. I spoke with Kate Clark of Jewish Family Service in San Diego. Her organization has been working with almost every asylum-seeker who has crossed the border into San Diego over the past few years - so several thousand migrants. She's seen how Title 42 and a program known as MPP, the Migrant Protection Protocols, which makes migrants wait months and dangerous Mexican border cities before their asylum hearing, has severely curtailed the right to asylum in the United States across the border.

KATE CLARK: Policies like MPP, like Title 42, are preventing individuals from lawfully seeking asylum in the United States. And unless and until we address those policies and immediately rescind them, then we won't be able to welcome the stranger and uphold the values that our country, I believe, were founded on.

RIVLIN-NADLER: So right now, many immigration advocates believe that the Biden administration could end Title 42 in the coming weeks because of all the court challenges to it and the easing of COVID restrictions domestically. But they've also thought it would be withdrawn long before now. When that happens, they hope that the American asylum system, one that was developed after another war in Europe more than 70 years ago, will be restored in a way that allows all migrants a fair chance to find safety without making people like these folks from Ukraine go through circuitous journeys or be subject to dangerous waits.

ELLIOTT: That's Max Rivlin-Nadler. Max, thanks so much.



ELLIOTT: President Biden isn't on the ballot this fall, but he spent time this week rallying those congressional Democrats who are.

FOLKENFLIK: They're facing blowback from voters about rising costs for things like groceries and gas.

ELLIOTT: Biden was blunt about what's at stake if his party loses control of Congress when he talked to House Democrats at their retreat yesterday.


BIDEN: We know the fundamental change that shifts if we lose the House and Senate. The only thing I'll have then is a veto pen.

FOLKENFLIK: NPR's Deirdre Walsh, who covers Congress, traveled to that retreat in Philadelphia where House Democrats pored over their election strategy. Hey, Deirdre.

DEIRDRE WALSH, BYLINE: Good morning, David.

FOLKENFLIK: So how are Democrats assessing their prospects of keeping the majority right now?

WALSH: They're actually feeling a little better. They know that the political headwinds are really not in their favor. Historically, the party in power loses seats in the midterm elections. Democrats right now hold a narrow majority in the House. And it's a 50-50 Senate. But House Democrats are now saying there are some bright spots, even though they're running at a time when inflation is at a 40-year high. They say they actually came out of the redistricting process that dictates which maps are used for congressional races better than they expected.

The head of the Democrats campaign committee, Sean Patrick Maloney - he predicted that the party would pick up seats as a result of redistricting. He also stressed that the most endangered Democrats have outraised their GOP challengers. But he also did admit that, you know, members in the Democratic Party committees have raised a lot of money. But outside Republican groups are very well-funded this cycle, and they're going to be a big factor in the midterms.

FOLKENFLIK: Midterm elections are typically cast as a referendum on the president, in addition to the party in power. Are Democrats foursquare behind Joe Biden?

WALSH: They are, and they're really rallying around his handling of the war in Ukraine. They're also pointing out that it's been one year since Congress passed the $1.9 trillion COVID relief bill. They passed that without any Republican support. And they stressed that accounts for 70 million shots in arms. And they think it really helped the economy turned the corner.

I talked to House Democratic Caucus chair Hakeem Jeffries, who stressed his party has a record that they can run on but also a plan for still what they want to do in the coming year. Other Democrats I talked to at the retreat admitted high gas prices are something they're really getting an earful about at home. But they say they're being upfront with their constituents about saying those prices are really a sacrifice the global community is making to support Ukraine during this Russian invasion. There's really not much Congress or the president can do about high gas prices, so Democrats are kind of pivoting to parts of their agenda that they say are going to lower prices for things like child care and prescription drugs.

FOLKENFLIK: You mentioned the Democrats agenda. Republicans have been pretty unified against it. But it's been stalled for months because of divisions in their own party, particularly in the Senate. What are Democrats doing about that?

WALSH: Democrats are pivoting to push the president to act on some of these things through executive orders. The Congressional Black Caucus and the Congressional Hispanic Caucus met with the president to give him some recommendations this week.

Here's what South Carolina Congressman Jim Clyburn, a top ally of Biden's, said yesterday.


JIM CLYBURN: Several of us have been encouraging the president to do the significant research that's necessary and to use that method to help kick-start recovery.

WALSH: Clyburn was talking about using legal research to figure out which executive actions the president could take on his own to address costs for consumers. But we really don't have any details yet on the specific policies, but we could see them later this week.

FOLKENFLIK: That's NPR's Deirdre Walsh. Deirdre, thanks.

WALSH: Thank you.

ELLIOTT: And for more politics and policy, be sure to check out the NPR Politics Podcast.


ELLIOTT: And that's UP FIRST for Saturday, March 12. I'm Debbie Elliott.

FOLKENFLIK: And I'm David Folkenflik. Be sure to catch UP FIRST tomorrow morning for an in-depth conversation exploring Ukrainian identity, how it formed its relationship to Russia and how it helps us understand what's happening now. And follow us on social media. We're @UpFirst on Twitter.

ELLIOTT: And for more news and interviews, books and music. Tune in to Weekend Edition Saturday and Sunday mornings. Find your NPR station at stations.npr.org.


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