EL PASO, Texas (Border Report) – When Aleksandr Pogorelov told his mom and stepfather that he received conscription papers to go fight in Ukraine, the couple panicked.

“He’s not the soldier type. He doesn’t have a mean bone in his body. And he doesn’t agree with that war. We all knew he’s going to get killed if he goes,” said Justin Jacobs, the stepfather.

The San Francisco couple bought Aleksandr airfare from Russia to Mexico and rented a car to meet him in the border city of Mexicali. Their plan was to drive him to the U.S. border on June 12 to ask for political asylum – conscription letter and medication for a chronic stomach illness in hand.

Their plan unraveled when they literally made a wrong turn at the border.

“Google Earth said, ‘turn right.’ I turned right and it was into the fast-track lane. I thought they would tell me to turn around and get in the (correct) lane,” Jacobs told Border Report.

The Bay Area locksmith shop owner says the U.S. Customs and Border Protection officer at the Designated Commuter Lane at the Calexico, Calif., port of entry instead told him to drive on to a secondary inspection area without looking at anyone’s papers.

The officers there put Aleksandr in handcuffs after seeing his passport lacked a visa. They accused Jacobs of presenting false documentation for a non-citizen, slapped him with a $5,000 fine and impounded the rental car. Officers released Jacobs and his wife, Marina, into triple-digit heat after four hours of questioning, their water bottles stuck inside the impounded Ford Escapade. Some good Samaritans gave them a ride to town.

 “It was just a horrible experience. They kept saying I was being charged with smuggling when I was not, that the rental got damaged in tow when it was not,” the business owner said. “I was just following the (first) officer’s instructions. […] Why would I try to smuggle him when he has a clear path to asylum and citizenship?”

Aleksandr is now in a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention center in San Diego, facing possible deportation back to Russia. Jacobs is looking for legal assistance to get him out and fight his own fine.

The episode illustrates how ordinary citizens can run afoul of U.S. immigration laws without the proper guidance, legal experts say.

“What I would advise people is that they seek an attorney and consider the options if they want to bring in a relative,” said El Paso immigration attorney Iliana Holguin. “Showing up at the border is very risky in the sense that you are subject to being detained.”

Ports of entry fall in a legal gray area in that you’re not technically in the United States until a U.S. official admits you. Still, you’re subject to federal authority and searches, and can be fined or detained for an alleged violation of U.S. law.

Border Report reached out to CBP and is awaiting a response. In the past, CBP officials have recommended that people who feel they were treated unfairly at the border ask to speak to a supervisor on the spot or file a formal complaint after the fact.

Jacobs said his and his wife’s priority is making sure Aleksandr is not sent back to Russia.

Ukraine conflict ‘like San Francisco invading Oakland’

CBP has encountered more than 19,000 Russian nationals at the border this fiscal year, with 45 percent of those encounters taking place in the San Diego Sector. That’s almost 50 percent more than in all of fiscal year 2021 and almost four times as many as in FY 2020.

The invasion of Ukraine – a neighbor and once a part of the Soviet Union – and the high number of Russian casualties reported by Western media might be a contributing factor to the exodus.

“Aleksandr has friends in Ukraine. To him, it would be like San Francisco going to war with Oakland,” Jacobs said.

The businessman described his stepson, 20, as an easy-going young man who likes biking, playing guitar and piano and has held a job as a shipyard container inspector in Russia despite suffering from chronic acid reflux.

“He supported himself in Russia. He doesn’t do drugs or drink. I own and operate a locksmith shop. I have work for him, it’s not like he’s going to be a burden. We’re going to take care of him and make sure he’s on the right path,” Jacobs said.

His contact with Aleksandr is limited because of detention. But he’s worried the young Russian has been unable to get his medication.

“He’s in pain, but the doctor said he saw nothing wrong. We’re talking to a case worker and I’ve talked to three lawyers but they tell me they can’t do anything until he has his (immigration) hearing. It could be weeks or months,” Jacobs said.

The stepdad fears the young man might buckle under pressure. “They’re trying everything to make him say he wants to go back,” he said.