As Russian forces continue to brutalize Ukraine, millions of Ukrainians have been forced to flee their country. Most have fled to Europe, but thousands have also made their way to the United States by way of Mexico.
These Ukrainians constitute a small minority of the people seeking to legally cross the US-Mexico border as refugees and asylum seekers. But they’re virtually the only ones who’ve made it through. While border officials have bent their own rules to admit Ukrainians, they have denied entry to many more Mexicans, Central Americans, Haitians, and other refugees of color.
Now, the Biden administration is creating a new system in which Ukrainians will bypass that border altogether, while the many other refugees and asylum seekers of other backgrounds will continue to face walls and other barriers.
This disparity is just one snapshot of an enormous, global problem.
Next door to Ukraine, Hungary’s far-right Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has made xenophobia—embodied by a razor-wire border fence to repel Middle Eastern and African migrants—a centerpiece of his rule. Yet he’s announced that his country will “rise to the challenge” of receiving Ukrainians.
Nearby Poland is also fortifying its borders to keep out desperate migrants and asylum seekers, primarily from the Middle East. The government is even threatening Poles who help these refugees with eight-year prison sentences. Yet this same country is now taking special measures to welcome over 3 million Ukrainian arrivals.
Similar disparities play out across the world. Some displaced people find refuge and are permitted to rebuild their lives in a new country. Others—mostly Black, brown, and/or Muslim—spend lifetimes as displaced people.
Unsurprisingly, the xenophobia that shapes these systems has made them woefully inadequate to the colossal need of the world’s refugees—including Ukrainians themselves.
The United Kingdom—which is rolling out a new policy of deporting Middle Eastern and African refugees to Rwanda—has proclaimed solidarity with Ukraine while confounding Ukrainian asylum seekers.
In Poland, African and South Asian students from Ukraine have faced discrimination, harassment, and violence.
After decades of institutionalized racism against Palestinians that international human rights organizations identify as apartheid, Israel has welcomed Jewish Ukrainians while discriminating against non-Jewish Ukrainians.
And even as the United States works to create a separate track for Ukrainians, it’s failing to provide the visas and infrastructure needed to actually serve them.
It is a lesson: Racism lowers the floor for how all people are treated. But it doesn’t have to be this way. Here in the United States, the crisis in Ukraine is an occasion to make a long-overdue transformation of refugee policy in general.
Each year, for example, the White House sets an arbitrary cap on the number of refugees it will allow into the country. Biden points to the current cap of 125,000 as evidence of a humanitarian shift from his predecessor, who lowered the cap to an appalling 15,000.
But even Biden’s figure is far too low. According to the UN’s refugee agency, there were some 35 million people displaced from their home countries before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Only a trickle of the over 500,000 African refugees at UN camps in Kenya or the 900,000 Rohingya at Cox’s bazaar in Bangladesh, for example, have had any hope of safe resettlement.
Even for the refugees it does accept, the US government offers precious little direct support, filtering limited funds through nonprofits instead. As a result, refugees like Afghans fleeing the Taliban face a lack of affordable housing and difficulty finding work, as well as legal hurdles against staying permanently.
The United States has abundant resources to accommodate refugees. We need to raise that refugee cap, provide refuge to those seeking it here, and take care of people once they arrive—not least because our government is no bystander to the world’s displacement crisis.
After all, US trade policies have displaced millions of workers in the Global South. Pollution and climate inaction from the United States have driven climate change, producing superstorms, droughts, and other disasters that force people from their homes. And the US War on Terrorism alone has displaced at least 37 million people, according to Brown University’s Costs of War Project.
Fortunately, the United States can also be a leader in helping to mitigate the world’s refugee crisis.
The global outpouring of sympathy for Ukraine has the potential to open a new chapter of solidarity with everyone who faces invasion, occupation, and displacement. Making good on that potential will require taking a hard look at the racism that shapes migration and refugee policy, both here and abroad.
We must change this system into one that honors the humanity of all migrants.