As U.S. welcomes Ukrainians, immigrant advocates see double standard

“My wish is that all people could be given the same sort of compassion.”

Lovette Kargbo Thompson has witnessed many immigration surges in her years as an immigrant rights advocate. She has noticed something different in the rhetoric around the latest group attempting to resettle in the U.S. in large numbers: Ukrainians.

Alongside a growing number of fellow activists, Kargbo Thompson says media outlets and politicians have treated the Ukrainian refugee exodus with a mixture of urgency and empathy that isn’t typically extended to other communities forced to leave their homes – a sign of a possible double standard.

“What has stood out to me is the [humanizing] narrative that is being created around Ukrainians,” said Kargbo Thompson, an Atlanta organizer with the Black Alliance for Just Immigration. “That same narrative should also be created when we are talking about other migrants, Black and brown migrants who are also seeking refuge and are going through all types of journeys in horrific conditions in order to come to the border and get help.”

In the past two months, nearly 10,000 undocumented Ukrainians were processed by U.S. officials at the Mexican border. The newcomers have been generally allowed to enter the country and granted one year of humanitarian parole – an outcome members of other groups don’t typically have access to.

“My wish is that all people could be given the same sort of compassion,” Kargbo Thompson said. “But it’s just not the case. And we know that race plays a big factor.”

A double standard at the border?

Since launching its full-scale assault on its smaller neighbor, Russia has brought about the fastest-growing refugee crisis since World War II, with over 4.5 million people fleeing Ukraine in less than two months, according to the UN. Although U.S. government officials have stressed that Europe should be Ukrainian refugees’ primary destination, steps have been taken to also welcome Ukrainians stateside.

On March 3, the Biden administration announced it would offer humanitarian relief to Ukrainians who were already living in the country but lacked legal status. That immigration benefit, called temporary protected status (TPS), will allow recipients to stay and work in the U.S. for at least 18 months.

Three weeks later, administration officials confirmed plans to take in 100,000 Ukrainian refugees, but they have yet to set a timeline for the completion of that resettlement goal.

Meanwhile, Ukrainians seeking speedier entry to the U.S. have made their way to the U.S.-Mexico border, taking advantage of visa-free entry requirements into Mexico for Ukrainian passport holders. On March 11, the head of U.S. Customs and Border Protection directed border officials to consider exempting Ukrainians from Title 42, the Trump-era rule that has blocked scores of Latin Americans from seeking asylum on public health grounds. Since the beginning of the pandemic, Title 42 has been invoked to expel about 1.7 million migrants.

Moves to reduce barriers to U.S. entry for Ukrainians likely benefit from widespread public backing – in a recent poll, over two-thirds of respondents indicated that they support the U.S. accepting refugees from Ukraine. But some members of other immigrant groups are growing uncomfortable, noting others should have access to a similar welcome. That includes Judith Delus Montgomery, a founding member of the Haitian American Lawyers Association of Georgia. Last year, Delus Montgomery spoke out when viral images emerged showing U.S. Border Patrol agents confronting Haitian migrants on horseback.

“Our community has been watching the last few weeks very closely in how the Biden administration has taken up the mantle for Ukrainians,” she said. “Haitians would’ve appreciated the same support.”

In a call with reporters, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas denied claims of a double standard at the southern border, stressing that border officials’ authority to exempt Ukrainians from Title 42 are the result of case-by-case considerations, which take into account migrants’ humanitarian needs. Those “individualized determinations … apply to everyone else,” Mayorkas said.

‘This was always possible’

Luis Zaldivar is the Georgia state director for CASA, an immigrant advocacy group. On the day of President Biden’s first State of the Union address – which was dominated by references to the war in Ukraine – Zaldivar joined fellow advocates in a rally near the White House, where they called for temporary protected status (TPS) for Cameroonians. An escalating civil war in the African nation has claimed the lives of thousands of people and displaced over a million.

Since Zaldivar’s trip to DC, a TPS designation has been issued for Ukraine, but not Cameroon.

“Violence is violence,” he said. “There shouldn’t be a contrast … These are all people who have escaped horrible situations.”

Africa and the Caribbean are well-represented in the list of countries that have recently received a TPS designation by U.S. authorities, including Haiti, Somalia, Sudan and South Sudan. With over 40,000 people on TPS, Haitians are currently among the biggest beneficiaries of the policy.

In Zaldivar’s view, the urgency with which immigration authorities have reacted to the Ukraine situation is indicative that “this was always possible.”

“It’s important for people to understand that the federal government has a lot of discretion to provide relief for people, especially for people that are fleeing wars.”

Late last month, the head of the UN refugee agency said that the outpouring of support across the globe for Ukrainians fleeing Russian aggression should “set the example for all refugee crises.”