Where Migrants Endured Suffering Matters at the U.S. Border

OOn March 11, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security sent a memo to the border, informing them that the border could offer that group of people special treatment on an individual basis. Border guards can exempt Ukrainians, unlike tens or thousands of migrants fleeing violence elsewhere, from Title 42, the public health order.

Legislators and immigrant advocates cheered the CBS News report. But many also pointed to a double standard: Ukrainians fleeing the well-documented horrors of an unprovoked war have been granted access to the U.S. relatively quickly, while people from other nations—many of whom are also fleeing sickening violence—have not seen anywhere near the same mercy. Border guards used Title 42 to expel nearly 2 million people, children and women, from Ukraine since March 2020 when the Trump Administration invoked it. The order also prohibits migrants from seeking asylum as an international right before being sent across the border.

For some experts who study the U.S.’s immigration and refugee history, the March memo exempting Ukrainians from Title 42 came as no surprise. It’s consistent, they say, with the a broader pattern of American sympathy for predominately white migrants from predominately Christian countries fleeing violence that is not typically extended to people who aren’t white or non-Christian.

“This heightened sense of responsibility, while commendable, is noticeably different than what Americans usually do when there is a conflict where you have millions of refugees,” says Sahar Aziz, professor of law and Chancellor’s Social Justice Scholar at Rutgers University, whose research focuses on the intersection of race and national security policy.

Aziz explains that the Americans did not respond well to millions fleeing Bashar al-Assad’s regime and regional militias. “While there were pockets of Americans who cared deeply about the Syrian refugee crisis…the majority [of the public sentiment] was ‘that’s too bad, but that’s not our problem,’” she says. “They didn’t see the Syrian as an extension of their identity.”

Learn more A Wave of Ukrainians and Russians at the U.S.-Mexico Border Puts Pressure on Biden’s Immigration Restrictions

A variety of geopolitical and populist factors influence the U.S. approach to international refugee situations. Russians for instance have not been granted the U.S.–Mexico border exempt from the U.S. as have Ukrainians.

Nearly 10,000 Ukrainians entered the U.S. between Feb. 1, and April 6 through U.S. Customs and Border Protection data. This was according to CBS News. Uncertain how many of these nearly 10,000 people were handled through the U.S. border with Mexico. Many Ukrainians travel through Mexico due to the ease of visa access.United Nations Refugee Agency estimatesAt March 30th, 4 Million Ukrainians fled their country to join the neighboring nations.

CBP met 272 Ukrainians on the U.S. Mexico border in February. That’s a much smaller group than other nationalities that arrive at this border. CBP data shows that only one Ukrainian had been expelled in violation of Title 42 during February. By comparison, nearly 69% of Guatemalans, more than 68% of Hondurans, and more than 64% of El Salvadoran migrants encountered in February were expelled under Title 42, according to TIME’s analysis of CBP data. These thousands have fled the Northern Triangle countries because of high homicide rates and poverty.

According to an agreement reached with Mexico, Guatemalans and Hondurans can be sent back to Mexico. Others, such as Haitians, do not fall under the scope of this agreement. Instead they are sent home. The U.S. has sent more than 18,800 Haitians home between September 19 and March 17. This is a country that was ravaged by gang violence and political instability as well as economic decline and the fallout of natural disasters.

Learn more A Haitian Man’s Brutal Experience With U.S. Border Agents Sparked Outrage. Now He’s Telling His Story

Alejandro Mayorkas (DHS Secretary) has stated repeatedly that the U.S. is not willing to offer Ukrainians special treatment. On March 17, Mayorkas stated at a press conference that the March memo was to be a reminder for CBP personnel about their discretion to exempt vulnerable migrants from Title 42.

“What we do on an individualized basis is evaluate whether a Ukrainian family, and frankly other families from other countries qualify for our discretionary authority of granting humanitarian parole,” he told CBS’s Norah O’Donnell on April 6. “That’s not specific to just Ukrainians, we apply that across the board.” When O’Donnell again asked if there is a double standard between the treatment of Ukrainians and other migrants, Mayorkas replied, “There is not.” DHS did not immediately respond to TIME’s request for further comment.

The CDC declared on April 1 that Title 42 expulsions would be ended May 23. This raises questions about how asylum seekers seeking to cross the border to the United States from Mexico. The U.S. is preparing to eliminate Title 42. Ian Kysel visiting clinical professor of law at Cornell University believes that the exclusion of Ukrainians could be an important step towards restoring asylum access.

Learn more Title 42 is Ending in May, But These Migrants Can’t Wait That Long

Kysel says that many countries, including the U.S.A., have always tried to find a balance between allowing the government to choose who they include and exclude, and trying to preserve humanitarian ideals. He also points out that international refugee and asylum laws prevent discrimination against people based on their race or religion. Kysel also said that nationality exclusion is not a clear line.

Kysel states that it is against international law to prevent people making an asylum claim, as Title 42 does. “[I’m] really hoping that this is a return to the rule of law,” he says. “Because treating one group favorably when you’re preventing others from getting protection from persecution…the fundamental problem is the continued rejection of refugee law.”

Aziz sees the manner in which Ukrainians are being received at the border as a moral dilemma. “I think that these are important questions that all of us as Americans have to ask ourselves,” she says. “Where are the limits of our sense of humanitarianism? Are those boundaries racial or religious? And and if so, what does that say about us as a country?”

Here are more must-read stories from TIME

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