From the beginning, U.S. immigration policy has been steeped in racism. In 1751, Benjamin Franklin wrote: “Why should Pennsylvania, founded by the English, become a Colony of Aliens, who will shortly be so numerous as to Germanize us instead of our Anglifying them, and will never adopt our Language or Customs, any more than they can acquire our Complexion?”
Franklin’s words, written even before the United States became a country, signaled the racism that would underlie U.S. immigration policy. A 1790 law required that any immigrants seeking to become citizens must be “free white persons.”
In varying forms, racial and gender restrictions on naturalization continued until 1952. Other racist immigration policies included the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882; discriminatory national origins quotas favoring northern Europe (1924-1965); and “Operation Wetback” in 1954, removing people of Mexican ancestry regardless of whether they were U.S. citizens.
Read from the vantage point of the 21st century, Franklin’s words also show the fallacy of race as a category. The Germans he wanted to exclude were first discriminated against and then elevated to the privileged construct of Whiteness. The same happened with other immigrant groups: Irish, Italians, even Eastern Europeans.
Racist immigration policies and practices made news again in recent weeks, as more than three million Ukrainian refugees fled the deadly Russian invasion of their country. Neighboring European countries opened their borders and hearts and homes to the Ukrainians fleeing war.
At the same time, those countries continued to bar refugees from Africa and Asia. The New York Times describes the plight of Albagir, a Sudanese refugee trying to enter Poland on the day that Russia attacked Ukraine. Albagir was robbed, beaten, and forced back across the border into a freezing winter forest by Polish border guards.
Refugees from the war in Ukraine were not exempt from this racism. African and Indian medical students studying in Ukraine report being turned away at the border or barred from boarding trains to even get to the border. Bulgarian Prime Minister Kiril Petkov made the racism explicit, telling journalists: “These are not the refugees we are used to… These people [Ukrainians] are Europeans.
“These people are intelligent, they are educated people,” Petkov continued. “This is not the refugee wave we have been used to, people we were not sure about their identity, people with unclear pasts, who could have been even terrorists. In other words, there is not a single European country now which is afraid of the current wave of refugees.”
Such racism toward refugees is not limited to Europe. The U.S. immigration system does not welcome refugees and asylum seekers, especially those from Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean.
The Trump administration instituted a Title 42 “public health” ban on asylum seekers. This ban uses a pretext of COVID danger to bar all asylum seekers from applying for protection at the border. The Biden administration has continued the ban over the protests of public health experts and many others.
Title 42 does not apply equally to all who arrive at the southern U.S. border. Most Ukrainian, and Russian asylum seekers—White European asylum seekers—are allowed entry. Most of their asylum applications are subsequently granted. That is not true for African, Asian, Latin American and Caribbean asylum seekers. Two examples illustrate the difference.
In recent years, tens of thousands of Cameroonians fled both ongoing conflicts between Anglophone separatists and the government forces and violence from armed Boko Haram groups in the north.
A February 2022 Human Rights Watch report documented arrest and torture of Cameroonians after the United States deported them in 2020. Despite granting Temporary Protected Status to Ukrainians inside the United States as of March 1, the United States refuses even that limited status to Cameroonians.
Last summer’s horrifying images of Border Patrol officers on horseback chasing Haitian refugees looked dramatically racist and got headlines as such. Few headlines note the continuing expulsions that have flown more than 20,000 Haitians back to the country the U.S. Department of State describes as having “serious security concerns, social unrest, an increase in human rights abuses, crippling poverty, and lack of basic resources.”
Ukrainian refugees need and deserve the world’s sympathy, support and shelter. So do the rest of the world’s refugees—regardless of race.
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