How race and religion have always played a role in the decision to seek refuge in the United States


Laura E. Alexander, Jane Hong, Karen Hooge Michalka, and Luis A. Romero

University of Nebraska Omaha / The Conversation

In the weeks following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, millions Ukrainians fled the country as refugees. Hundreds of these refugees have now come at the US southern border seeking asylum, after flying 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 protocols”, a US government action initiated by the Trump administration in December 2018 and known informally as “Stay in Mexico”. The second is Title 42, a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guideline 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 tips enabling customs and border protection officers Ukrainians exempted
of Title 42 on a case-by-case basis, which allowed many families to enter. However, this exception has not been granted to other asylum seekers, regardless of the danger they face. The administration may lift Title 42 at the end of May 2022, but that plan has come up against fierce debates.

The difference in treatment between Ukrainian and Central American, African, Haitian and other asylum seekers has guest critical
that the administration pursues immigration policies in a racist manner, favoring white, European, primarily Christian refugees over other groups.

This problem is not new. As scholars of religion, race, immigrationand 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 created humanitarian crises in both places.

Under significant international pressure, Congress passed the Refugee Relief Act of 1953. According to the historian Carl Bon Tempoin the minds of President Dwight Eisenhower and most lawmakers, “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 designated a quota of only 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 that the displaced population in Europe was a humanitarian crisis and called on the international community to alleviate these pressures by accepting refugees. Over the next decade, Western countries, including the United States, France and Britain, took in millions of displaced Europeans as part of a broader cold war public relations strategy to contain the Soviet Union and demonstrate the superiority of western capitalist societies to life behind the iron curtain.

Millions of ethnic Chinese displaced by the 1949 communist revolution weren’t greeted so kindly. In the early 1950s, Hong Kong the population has tripled due to mainland Chinese fleeing civil war and communist rule, triggering a crisis. However, most Western countries continued to exclude Chinese and other Asians from immigration and makes 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 Immigration Act 1965.

Haitian asylum seekers

The first mostly black Haitian asylum seekers tried to reach the United States by boat in 1963 during the dictatorship of Francois Duvalier. It was a time of great Economic inequality and severe violent repression of the political opposition in Haiti.

Between 1973 and 1991more than 80,000 Haitians attempted to seek asylum in the United States. The United States, however, constantly tempted to intercept and turn back boats carrying Haitian asylum seekers to avoid having to hear their case.

In the 1980s and 1990s, almost all Haitians who tried to seek asylum were either refused or diverted. Some disparities in asylum rates could be explained by political factors, including the US government’s interest in prioritize refugees from communist countries.

However, the United States District Court for the Southern District of Florida and the 11th Circuit Court both found, in Haitian Refugee Center v. Civiletti and Jean c. Nelson respectively, that racial discrimination might be the sole reason for these startlingly different results for Haitians. In John v. Nelson, the 11th circuit heard testimony from plaintiffs
that there was less than a two in a billion chance that Haitians would be denied parole so consistently if immigration policies were applied in a racially neutral manner. Both courts also noted differences in asylum 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 1990. Northern Ireland, for example, was designated
as a separate country from the United Kingdom, and 40% of the “diversity transition” visas granted 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 have been forced to fly in Haiti and faced degrading treatment.

Syrian refugees and the Muslim ban

Beginning in January 2017, President Donald Trump released a series executive orders described by many refugee advocates as “Muslim prohibition”. The ban suspended the entry of people from Muslim-majority countriesincluding Syrians, and limited the number of admissions of refugees from several Muslim-majority countries.

Syrian refugees, most of them fled the Syrian civil war that began in 2011 and the violence of the Islamic State, were specifically targeted by the Muslim ban.

A February 2017 release
of the Muslim ban claimed that the Syrian refugees were “prejudicial to the interests of the United States and therefore suspend[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.

Studies show this religion, especially Islamis used to create symbolic borders of racial distinction in order to promote immigration law enforcement goals. Specifically, the government has attempted to justify a refugee exclusion policy based on race and religion by implicating Muslims and refugees in terrorism, as Trump did in speecheven calling the Syrians “Trojan horsefor terrorism.

International agreements for refugees and asylum seekers Clearly that admissions should be based on need. In principle, US 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.

Assistant Professor of Religious Studies, Goldstein Family Community Chair in Human Rights, University of Nebraska Omaha

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