How race and religion have always played a role in the decision to seek refuge in the United States
By Laura E. Alexander, Jane Hong,
In the weeks following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, millions of Ukrainians fled the country as refugees. Hundreds of these refugees have now arrived at the US southern border seeking asylum, having flown to Mexico on tourist visas.
At the border, Ukrainians, alongside thousands of other asylum seekers, must navigate two policies designed to keep people out. The first is the “Migrant Protection Protocol”, a US government action initiated by the Trump administration in December 2018 and known informally as “Remain in Mexico”.
The second is Title 42, a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention directive developed in 2020, ostensibly to protect public health during the COVID-19 pandemic. The directive deports all irregular immigrants (those without permanent residency or visas in hand) and asylum seekers who attempt to enter the United States by land.
On March 11, 2022, however, the Biden administration provided guidelines allowing Customs and Border Protection officials to exempt Ukrainians from Title 42 on a case-by-case basis, allowing many families to enter. . However, this exception has not been granted to other asylum seekers, regardless of the danger they face. It’s possible the administration will lift Title 42 at the end of May 2022, but that plan has met with fierce debate.
The differential treatment of Ukrainian and Central American, African, Haitian and other asylum seekers has drawn criticism that the administration is applying immigration policies in a racist manner, favoring white, European, mostly Christian refugees over others groups.
This problem 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 policy. We argue that US refugee and asylum policy has long been racially and religiously discriminatory in practice.
Chinese asylum seekers
Race played a major role in defining who counted as a refugee during the early years of the Cold War. The displacement of millions of people fleeing communist regimes in Eastern Europe and East Asia has created humanitarian crises in both places.
Under significant international pressure, Congress passed the Refugee Relief Act of 1953. According to historian Carl Bon Tempo, in the minds of President Dwight Eisenhower and most legislators, “refugee” meant “anti-Communist European”. The text and implementation of the law testify to this.
Of the 214,000 visas reserved for refugees, the law only designated a quota of 5,000 places for Asians (2,000 for Chinese and 3,000 for “Far Eastern” refugees). Ultimately, around 9,000 Chinese (including 6,862 Chinese wives of US citizens who came as over-quota migrants) were admitted under the 1953 Refugee Act, compared to nearly 200,000 Southern Europeans and East over the next three years.
Racial prejudices have also impacted the international response to refugees. In the late 1940s and early 1950s, United Nations officials declared the displaced population in Europe a humanitarian crisis and called on the international community to relieve these pressures by accepting refugees.
Over the next decade, Western nations including the United States, France and Britain took in millions of displaced Europeans as part of a broader Cold War public relations strategy aimed at to contain the Soviet Union and to demonstrate the superiority of Western capitalist societies over life behind the Iron Curtain.
Millions of ethnic Chinese displaced by the communist revolution of 1949 were not so kindly received. In the early 1950s, Hong Kong’s population tripled due to mainland Chinese fleeing civil war and communist rule, triggering a crisis. Most Western countries, however, continued to exclude Chinese and other Asians from immigration and made some exceptions for refugees.
In the United States, the exclusion provisions that prohibited Asians from immigrating as “aliens ineligible for citizenship” would not be removed from immigration law until the 1965 Immigration Act.
Haitian asylum seekers
The first Haitian asylum seekers, mostly black, tried to reach the United States by boat in 1963 under the dictatorship of François 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 attempted to seek asylum in the United States. The United States, however, has consistently attempted to intercept and turn away boats carrying Haitian asylum seekers to avoid having to hear their cases.
In the 1980s and 1990s, nearly all Haitians who attempted to seek asylum were either refused or turned away. Some disparities in asylum rates could be explained by political factors, including the US government’s interest in prioritizing refugees from communist countries.
However, the United States District Court for the Southern District of Florida and the 11th Circuit Court have both found, respectively in Haitian Refugee Center v. Civiletti and Jean c. Nelson, that racial discrimination could be the sole reason for such startlingly different outcomes for Haitians.
In John v. Nelson, the 11th Circuit heard testimony from plaintiffs that there was less than a 2 billion to 1 chance that Haitians would be denied parole so consistently if immigration policies were applied neutrally on the racial level. Both tribunals also noted differences in asylum claim outcomes between Cuban refugees, who were predominantly white, and Haitian refugees.
During the same period, even as black Haitian asylum seekers were turned away, European immigrants, who were predominantly white, were given preference in the diversity visa system created by the Immigration Act of 1990. Northern Ireland, for example, was designated as a separate country from the UK, and 40% of ‘diversity transition’ visas issued between 1992 and 1994 were reserved for Irish immigrants.
Similar accusations of racism and discriminatory treatment have surfaced in recent months as Haitian asylum seekers at the US-Mexico border were forced onto flights to Haiti and faced degrading treatment.
Syrian refugees and the Muslim ban
Beginning in January 2017, President Donald Trump issued a series of executive orders described by many refugee advocates as the “Muslim ban”. The ban suspended the entry of people from Muslim-majority countries, including Syrians, and limited the number of admissions of refugees from several Muslim-majority countries.
Syrian refugees, most of whom fled the Syrian civil war that began in 2011 and Islamic State violence, have been specifically targeted by the Muslim ban.
A February 2017 version of the Muslim ban claimed that Syrian refugees were “prejudicial to the interests of the United States and therefore suspended[ed]” upon admission, with a few exceptions. This contributed to a significant decrease in the number of Syrian refugees – from 12,587 to 76 between fiscal years 2016 to 2018.
Research shows that religion, particularly Islam, is used to create symbolic boundaries of racial distinction to further immigration law enforcement goals. Specifically, the government has attempted to justify a policy of refugee exclusion based on race and religion by implicating Muslims and refugees in terrorism, as Trump has done in speeches, even calling Syrians ” Trojan horse” of terrorism.
International agreements for refugees and asylum seekers clearly state that admissions should be based on need. In principle, American law also says so. But these key moments in US history show how race, religion and other factors play a role in determining who is and who is absent.
While refugees from the war in Ukraine deserve support from the United States and other countries, the contrast between the treatment of different groups of refugees shows that the process of obtaining refuge in the United States is still a long way off. to be fair.
About this column
Laura E. Alexander is Assistant Professor of Religious Studies, Goldstein Family Community Chair in Human Rights, University of Nebraska Omaha.
Jane Hong is an associate professor of history at Occidental College.
Karen Hooge Michalka is assistant professor of sociology at the University of Mary.
Luis A. Romero is an assistant professor at Texas Christian University.
This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.