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"Refugees" or "migrant hordes" at the border?

Updated: Apr 19, 2022

Words matter. Pejorative labels have a swift impact on public perception of migrants. Politicians know this and capitalize on it, in order to secure buy in for dubious public policies like building walls and caging children.


On 11 April, 2022, CBS News reported that the US had processed 9,926 undocumented Ukrainians in through the southern border with Mexico over a six week period, with more than 750 processed through in a single day in April. This is terrific news, and exactly what should have been happening over the past six years with migrants fleeing danger in their home countries. But of course, it has not been happening.


When I worked in Tijuana in 2018, there were thousands of desperate people, living in mud pits for months, trying to get permission from Mexican authorities to cross the bridge to inform US immigration officials (CBP) that they wished to seek asylum, as is their right under the Refugee Convention. Instead, through dubious (and racist) policies premised on national security, like "metering," and later "Remain in Mexico," and still later the "Migrant Protection Protocols," all were denied that ability. And with the advent of Title 42, allegedly a covid public health basis for denying entry in effect through the end of May, they still are. But not those from Ukraine.


As I have previously written, President Biden was very imprecise when he used the word "refugee" to announce the admission of 100,000 people from Ukraine. None of the almost 10,000 Ukrainians admitted were admitted as refugees. But the people at the Southern border, seeking entry to the US -- people from Honduras, Guatemala, Haiti, Cameroon -- they are still at the southern border. Still waiting. Still at risk from traffickers and organized crime. Still denied entry to request asylum, because the Title 42 exemptions were only offered to people from Ukraine.


Between 2015 and 2022, those seeking entry at the southern border were variously described as "migrant hordes," "criminals" and "rapists," an "infestation" "rushing," and "overrunning the border." None of that was true. Nevertheless, Trump and the governor of Texas sent military troops to defend the border against an "invasion." Almost all of these individuals were brown and almost all were denied the ability to approach CBP to request asylum. When they were admitted, the US government separated parents from their children, put the children in detention and prosecuted the parents. You can read about the work done by Refugee Projects to fight these policies and represent these individuals under the publications tab, above, and watch videos about that work here.


The first Ukrainian admitted through humanitarian parole, of whom I am aware, entered the US yesterday. Pro bono attorneys and advocates filed more than 44,000 humanitarian parole applications for Afghans since August of 2021 ($575 per application, yielded over $25 million to USCIS). Fewer than 150 of the applications were granted; even Afghans permitted to enter were offered port parole and any pending humanitarian parole applications they may have filed were denied as moot (DHS retained the $575 fee).


This type of disparity in refugee assistance exists all over the world, as countries create safe migration routes and exceptions to public health and national security policies and offer shelter and employment to Ukrainians fleeing, even while they deny the same -- even build walls to keep out -- to Afghans, Syrians and others fleeing war and persecution.


I am working right now on behalf of Ukrainians fleeing the devastation of war and would never begrudge a single one of them the ability to flee nor to seek entry to the US or another country for sanctuary. On the contrary, I am working on individual cases and the broader policies facilitating this every day for all. Yet, the disparity in treatment between Ukrainians and everyone else is striking and shameful.


The United States and the countries of the world which have signed onto the Refugee Convention should all be offering asylum law and processes to everyone fleeing persecution. Refugee flows destabilize the world and all national states should share the burden of offering safety and refuge. This was the premise of the United Nations, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Refugee Convention -- that all nations of the world recognize the "inherent dignity" and the "equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family" and work together to protect those whose human rights have been violated, in order to prevent the scourge of future wars. The current disparities in treatment at borders around the world fail utterly in meeting these objectives. We can, and should, do better.




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