National Security

Critics decry double standard on migrants amid Ukraine crisis

Rep. Lou Correa (D-Calif.) leaves the House Chamber following a series of votes regarding veterans on Tuesday, November 16, 2021.
Greg Nash

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has shown the extent the U.S. can marshal its immigration resources to be a safe haven for those in need — when it wants to. 

In the month since the Russian invasion began, the U.S. has offered Temporary Protected Status (TPS) to Ukrainians, allowing those already here to remain without fear of deportation.

The U.S. government also waived the Title 42 prohibition on seeking asylum for Ukrainians who present themselves at the border. And President Biden has pledged to take in 100,000 Ukrainians over the next several years.

“That’s the way the system is supposed to work,” Rep. Lou Correa (D-Calif.) told The Hill.

“If you’re a person that is fleeing violence, a serious threat to your life that’s credible, you have a Russian soldier with an AK-47 to your head, to your family, to your community, that makes you a political refugee. And we’re supposed to be the place that you come as a safe place. That’s the way it’s supposed to work,” he said. 

“Where it’s going wrong is you also have Central Americans with AK-47s to their head, not by Russian soldiers, but by cartel soldiers. They’re also political refugees. … Why is it that one group is credible and the other group is not?” 

Immigration advocates say Ukrainians are completely deserving of the assistance they’ve received. 

Images coming out of the country show cities shelled to the ground as Russians take out Ukraine’s hospitals, schools and power plants. Train platforms have crowded as families seek to flee to safety, creating some 4 million refugees.

“I don’t have a problem with the response to Ukraine. Obviously, the United States has to do its part in the overwhelming amount of people fleeing Ukraine because of Russia’s invasion and the cruelty of Russia,” Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.) said to The Hill. 

“Having said that, though, you have situations where you have people coming to our border, fleeing persecution, bringing credible fear [claims], and we can’t have a dynamic where we’re creating a dual standard for how we treat people and how we process people. And right now that appears to be that case.”

Immigration advocates are clear about the disparity they see.

Jennifer Quigley, senior director for government affairs at Human Rights First, said they’ve been working to convince the administration for months to make a TPS designation for war-torn Ethiopia; Cameroon, where citizens face violence from both government forces and armed groups; and Mauritania, where slavery is among the human rights violations faced by residents.

“It took nine days for Ukraine” to get TPS, she said.

“It’s hard when you see Ukraine get the designation so quickly. It’s like, ‘Oh they can do it that quickly. It is possible.’ So why didn’t they do it when we were talking about majority Black and brown countries? It’s so incredibly frustrating for us to not look at this in terms of racial disparity,” Quigley said.

Rep. Pete Aguilar (D-Calif.) said the visibility surrounding Ukraine is a factor.

“People see what’s happening in Ukraine; people want to help; and I think that spirit, that big heart that we want to show with humanitarian assistance and aid lends itself to political support here and wanting to do something. And sometimes when we see people fleeing different regions, we don’t hold it to that same standard,” Aguilar told The Hill.

But Quigley noted people from other countries have struggled to win a TPS designation even when their need won media attention.

“For Afghanistan it took seven months. We literally evacuated people from there, it was that bad. But we didn’t immediately designate TPS. That has got to be the most illogical example.” she said. “We’re just pissed. It makes no sense whatsoever that they’re dragging their feet on other TPS designations.”

The delays can have real consequences.

Human Rights Watch issued a report tracking several dozen Cameroonians deported back after fleeing to the U.S. It found government forces detained or imprisoned at least 39 deported people after their return, and documented 13 cases of those deported later being subjected to torture. 

Advocates were likewise surprised to see Ukrainians exempted from Title 42, which the Biden administration has used to summarily expel those who cross the border, including those seeking asylum.

“There definitely is an element among members that people are being treated differently for similar reasons [when it comes to] claiming asylum. And I think that where that exists, we have to remedy it,” Aguilar said.

“So until that’s settled, and until you treat asylum-seekers from every region with that same humanitarian spirit, then I think that we have some work to do.” 

While the Biden administration has floated that it may lift the policy by May 23, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has not formally announced the move. The policy has been used roughly 1.7 million times under Biden, usually to expel Central American migrants and others from Latin America.

It’s also been used on Haitian nationals, including those who sought to cross the border at Del Rio, Texas, only to be pushed back by Border Patrol agents on horseback.

“Stepping in and providing protections for Ukrainians who are impacted by the war is important, and it’s great the administration did so as quickly as they have,” said Jorge Loweree, policy director at the American Immigration Council, “but there are many other countries that are experiencing political upheaval that are impacted by things like natural disasters and general insecurity that we should be stepping in to provide protections for as well.”

“Given the speed and the aggressive nature of the response to the situation in Ukraine, it’s clear that if the government is inclined to implement changes targeting a specific population, they can do so and do so quickly,” Loweree added.

The Department of Homeland Security did not respond to request for comment from The Hill. 

Not everyone calling for an end to Title 42 and expanding TPS has leveled criticism.

“What’s happening in Ukraine is just really over the top and we got to give them help. I mean, the bombings and the level of destruction is really intense,” Rep. Adriano Espaillat (D-N.Y.) told The Hill.

“I don’t like to approach it like a zero-sum game or like a victory for one is a loss for the other. If you’re fleeing violence, from gangs or whatever, you should be considered for TPS. But if they’re bombing your town, and people are dying, and little kids are getting blown up, that’s serious stuff. We got to help them out — quickly too.”

That was echoed by Grijalva, who said the U.S. needs to weigh a wider variety of the causes of migration when considering things like TPS and offering refugee status.

“We’re getting refugees from all over the world to our border, because they’re fleeing what they believe to be persecution, they’re fleeing climate, they’re fleeing poverty and we need to invest in that process for them down there,” he said.

“And we’re not doing that. And I think that’s a double standard that we shouldn’t encourage.”

This story was updated at 9:59 a.m. on March 31.

Tags Adriano Espaillat Afghanistan Cameroon Ethiopia Haiti Immigration Joe Biden Lou Correa Pete Aguilar Russia Title 42 TPS Ukraine

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