Commentary

U.S. opens arms for Ukrainian refugees while turning back others fleeing violence

Asylum policies are different for white Europeans, refugees from other countries face jail time and closed borders

March 17, 2022 4:00 am

Parents-to-be from Haiti stand at a gap in the U.S.-Mexico border wall after having traveled from South America to the United States on Dec. 10, 2021 in Yuma, Arizona. (Photo by John Moore / Getty Images)

The Department of Justice had a tough day in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit earlier this month. There, in a court case called Huisha-Huisha v. Mayorkas, the judge ruled that the Biden administration cannot use a public health order to expel migrant families into countries where they would face persecution or torture. 

The ruling doesn’t quite re-establish the right to seek asylum on the U.S. border, but it is a first step toward undermining the flimsy reasoning behind the public health order, Title 42, that has kept the border closed for the last two years. 

Though it may seem incredible that our government is defending its right to send children directly to countries where they might die, that is precisely the state of U.S. immigration policy right now. Just ask any of the 13,000+ Haitians who have been expelled directly to Haiti since our government implemented Title 42 in March 2020 — over half of whom are children or parents traveling with children. 

Yet the Huisha-Huisha decision barely received any media coverage. And why should it? There is a brutal Russian attack on Ukraine underway and an attending refugee crisis, in which the United Nations estimates that 3 million refugees have fled their homes. 

There seems to be a widespread expectation that Ukrainians in exodus should be greeted peacefully at borders. 

That is not a ridiculous expectation.  

Of course they should be treated kindly. They are innocent people who are escaping Russia’s savage and unprovoked onslaught. And so far, the receiving European Union nations should be praised for their treatment of refugees. It’s impressive considering far more people have left Ukraine in the last two weeks than came to the US-Mexico border in all of 2021.

Remain in Mexico protocols force thousands of asylum-seekers to endure violence, a report shows

But it’s worth wondering why those of us watching from the West expect Ukrainians to be treated humanely when other people are not. 

What if Poland had closed its border, insisting that refugees were vectors for COVID-19, and forced women and children to sleep in the streets on the Ukrainian frontier? There would be intense international outcry and near universal condemnation of Poland.

Yet that is not too far off from how the United States is treating refugees — or even how other EU states treat people from Africa and the Middle East. 

Last fall, there was a stand-off between migrants and Polish border patrol at the Poland-Belarus border. It was a complicated situation in which the president of Belarus allegedly provided passage for Middle Eastern refugees to the Polish border as a means of putting pressure on the EU to lift economic sanctions on Belarus. 

There were less than 10,000 people attempting to cross the border, but they represented millions of migrants from that region attempting to get to the EU, some of whom fled war-torn countries themselves. They were met at the Polish border with tear gas and fire hoses in the bitter cold. There were children among them. 

The most obvious answer to our disparate expectations and reactions to the treatment of refugees is that there is a certain level of comfort in the dehumanization of people of some races and national origins that would be unthinkable to some if they were white and European. 

Of course this is not said out loud. 

White House allows Ukrainian nationals to stay in the U.S. without fear of deportation

Instead, we hear concern insidiously based on assertions that Ukrainians are “civilized,” “middle class,” “drive cars like we do,” or, unbelievably, “look like us.” It’s almost as if there is an expectation that people in Syria, Afghanistan or Haiti will live lives of violence, which then provides cover for the violence that governments inflict on migrants at their borders. 

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security demonstrated its facility to treat Europeans humanely last week when officials swiftly designated Temporary Protected Status (TPS) for Ukraine, meaning Ukrainians already inside the U.S. will not face deportation and have an opportunity to apply for a work permit.  

DHS also suspended deportation flights to Russia, Poland, Slovakia, Romania, Belarus, Hungary, Georgia and Moldova in an effort to not exacerbate the humanitarian crises in those countries.

This was the right move. 

Yet it is worth noting that TPS designation for Afghan people didn’t happen until Wednesday, March 16, and the efforts to create TPS for 40,000 Cameroonians living in the US have so far been unsuccessful. Incredibly, Haiti has a TPS designation  — yet the US has still sent over 160 removal flights to Haiti in the last six months, according to Witness at the Border, a group that tracks such flights. 

It’s frustrating to have to criticize governments while also praising their responses to the Ukrainian refugee crisis. 

I don’t want them to stop treating Ukrainians correctly. 

But it’s disgusting to see how capable soldiers and border guards and DHS officials are in taking humane and respectful action where white Europeans are concerned, while Black and Brown people have to watch their siblings get beaten back violently from borders, and shackled and detained, and made to suffer in the name of public policy. 

The United States has the resources to welcome all refugees with the same care employed to welcome Ukrainans to the EU. 

It would require a dramatic shift in leadership and the dismantling of the multibillion dollar militarized security operation on our southern border — and diverting that funding to humanitarian agencies. 

And it would require — at last — the end of Title 42.

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UPDATE:

This article was updated at 9 a.m. on Thursday, March 17, to correctly reflect the TPS designation for Afghan people announced by DHS on March 16. 

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Allegra Love
Allegra Love

Allegra Love is an immigration attorney from Santa Fe. She is a graduate of Dartmouth College and the University of New Mexico School of Law. She is the founder of and former director of Santa Fe Dreamers Project, a legal services organization serving immigrants and refugees. Currently she works with the El Paso Immigration Collaborative to represent detained asylum-seekers in the Southwest and in the national movement to abolish immigration detention in the United States.

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