In the weeks since Russia invaded Ukraine, millions of Ukrainians have fled the country as refugees. Hundreds of those refugees have now arrived at the southern border of the United States seeking asylum, after flying to Mexico on tourist visas.
At the border, Ukrainians, along with thousands of other asylum seekers, have to navigate two policies that are meant to keep people out. The first is the “Migrant Protection Protocols,” a U.S. government action initiated by the Trump administration in December 2018 and informally known as “Stay in Mexico.” The second is Title 42, a Directive of Centers for Disease Control and Prevention created in 2020, ostensibly to protect public health during the COVID-19 pandemic. The directive expels all irregular immigrants (those without permanent residence or a visa in hand) and asylum seekers trying to enter the US by country.
On March 11, 2022, however, the Biden administration provided guidance that allowed customs and border protection officers to release Ukrainians on a case-by-case basis from Title 42, which allowed many families to enter. However, this exception was not granted to other asylum seekers, regardless of the danger they were in. It is possible that the administration may lift title 42 at the end of May 2022, but that plan has faced heated debates.
The different treatment of Ukrainians towards Central American, African, Haitian and other asylum seekers has drawn criticism that the administration enforces immigration policies in a racist manner and favors white, European, mostly Christian refugees over other groups.
This issue is not new. As scholars of religion, race, immigration, and racial and religious politics in the United States, we study both historical and current immigration policies. We argue that American refugee and asylum policy has long been racially and religiously discriminatory in practice.
Chinese asylum seekers
Race played a major role in who counted as a refugee during the early years of the Cold War. The displacement of millions fleeing communist regimes in Eastern Europe and East Asia has created humanitarian crises in both places.
Under considerable international pressure, Congress passed the 1953 Refugee Relief Act. According to historian Carl Bon Tempo, in the minds of President Dwight Eisenhower and most lawmakers, “refugee” meant “anti-communist European.” The text and implementation of the law reflected this. Of the 214,000 visas set aside for refugees, the law designated a quota of only 5,000 places for Asians (2,000 for Chinese and 3,000 for “Far Eastern” refugees). Eventually, about 9,000 Chinese (including 6,862 Chinese women from U.S. citizens who came as non-quota migrants) were admitted under the 1953 Refugee Act, compared to nearly 200,000 Southern and Eastern Europeans, over the next three years.
Racial prejudice has also influenced the international response to refugees. By the late 1940s and early 1950s, United Nations officials had declared the displaced population in Europe a humanitarian crisis and called on the international community to alleviate this pressure by accepting refugees. Over the next decade, Western nations, including the United States, France, and Britain, received millions of displaced Europeans as part of a larger Cold War liaison strategy to keep the Soviet Union under control and to uphold the superiority of Western capitalist societies. to demonstrate the Iron Curtain.
Millions of ethnic Chinese displaced by the Communist Revolution of 1949 were not greeted so kindly. In the early 1950s, Hong Kong’s population tripled as a result of the flight of Chinese mainland war and communist rule, which caused a crisis. However, most Western countries continued to exclude Chinese and other Asians from immigration and made few exceptions for refugees.
In the United States, exclusionary provisions prohibiting Asians from immigrating as “foreigners who are not eligible for citizenship” will be removed from immigration legislation until the 1965 Immigration Act.
Haitian asylum seekers
The first Haitian asylum seekers, overwhelmingly black, attempted to reach the United States in boats in 1963 during the dictatorship of Francois Duvalier. It was a period of great economic inequality and severe violent repression of political opposition in Haiti.
Between 1973 and 1991, more than 80,000 Haitians sought asylum in the United States. However, the US has consistently sought to intercept and return boats with Haitian asylum seekers to prevent them from having to hear their cases.
In the 1980s and 1990s, almost every single Haitian who tried to seek asylum was either denied or turned away. Some differences between asylum rates can be explained by political factors, notably the US government’s interest in prioritizing refugees from communist countries.
However, the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida and the 11th Circuit Court found both, respectively, in Haitian Refugee Center v. Civiletti and Jean v. Nelson, that racial discrimination may be the only reason for such strikingly different outcomes for Haitians. In Jean v. Nelson heard the 11th Circuit testimony from plaintiffs that there was a less than two-in-1 billion chance that Haitians would be so consistently denied parole if immigration policies were applied in racially neutral ways. Both courts also noted the differences in outcome of asylum claims between Cuban refugees, who were predominantly white, and Haitian refugees.
During the same period, even while Black Haitian asylum seekers were turned away, European immigrants, who were predominantly white, were given preference in the Diversity Visa system created by the 1990 Immigration Act. Northern Ireland, for example, was designated a separate country from the United Kingdom, and 40% of “diversity transition” visas granted during 1992 to 1994 were earmarked for Irish immigrants.
Similar accusations of racism and discriminatory treatment have surfaced in recent months as Haitian asylum seekers at the U.S.-Mexico border were forced to flee to Haiti and faced degrading treatment.
Syrian refugees and Muslim ban
As of January 2017, President Donald Trump has issued a series of executive orders described by many refugee advocates as the “Muslim ban”. The ban suspended the entry of people from majority-Muslim countries, including Syrians, and limited the number of refugee admissions from several majority-Muslim countries.
Syrian refugees, most of whom fled from the Syrian civil war that began in 2011 and violence by the Islamic State, were specifically targeted in the Muslim ban.
A February 2017 version of the Muslim ban claims that Syrian refugees “were detrimental to the interests of the United States and therefore suspended[ed]”From admission, with few exceptions. This has contributed to a significant decrease in the number of Syrian refugees – from 12,587 to 76 between the 2016 to 2018 financial year.
Research shows that religion, especially Islam, is used to create symbolic boundaries of racial discrimination in order to promote immigration enforcement goals. The government has specifically sought to justify an exclusive refugee policy based on race and religion by involving Muslims and refugees in terrorism, as Trump did in speeches, and even called Syrians the “Trojan horse” for terrorism.
International agreements for refugees and asylum seekers make it clear that surveys must be based on need. In principle, US law says so too. But these key moments in the history of the United States show how race, religion, and other factors play a role in determining who is in and who is out.
While refugees from the war in Ukraine deserve the support of the United States and other countries, the contrast between the treatment of different groups of refugees shows that the process of finding refuge in the United States is still far from fair.
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