Denying human right of asylum bludgeons all our humanity

“I’m not asking for anything from the United States, just to be let in. All we need is to be safe. All we want is to keep our lives safe.”

Those are the words of a 34-year-old Ukrainian mother of three children (ages 14, 12, and six) after US border officials denied the family the opportunity to seek asylum. The woman, who asked to be identified as Sofiia, was quoted this week by The San Diego Union-Tribune.

Desperate parents have said the same thing as Sofiia countless times at the same border between Tijuana and San Diego. Often those words are spoken by people from Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, and many other places where the terrible truth is that leaving is safer than staying. They too have been turned away in their hour of need.

This tragic scenario raises this question: Who is deemed worthy of protection by the US and how have Americans reached that rubric?

It’s been a stunning and horrific month for the people of Ukraine, with Russia’s invasion shocking the rest of the world into action and creating a domino effect that will keep going far into the future. The US is almost 6,000 miles from Ukraine, but the repercussions here are already vast and multi-faceted, ranging from the political to the personal.

Solidarity 

Last week I wrote about some Ukrainians living here and protesting the war and the solidarity they have found. The political reaction of the US to Putin’s aggression also reflects solidarity with the Ukrainian people. So far, the US has joined with Europe in imposing sanctions broader and deeper than ever before, including freezing the assets of Russia’s central bank, banning people and businesses from dealings with the central bank, and removing several Russian banks from the Swift international financial messaging system.

On Tuesday, president Joe Biden banned imports of Russian oil, gas, and coal, stating: “If we do not respond to Putin’s assault on global peace and stability today, the cost of freedom and to the American people will be even greater tomorrow.”

On Wednesday, US lawmakers finalised a bill to send $13.6bn (€12.4bn) in emergency aid to Ukraine. The New York Times reported: “The bill would send $6.5bn to the Pentagon, to cover the costs of deploying American troops to Eastern-flank allies and providing Ukrainian forces with intelligence support, as well as to backfill weapons the United States has already sent to the government in Kyiv.”

Every day it seems like another US company stops doing business in Russia, including behemoths such as McDonald’s, Coca-Cola, Pepsi-Co, and Starbucks. Even US-based dating apps like Bumble, with a considerable presence across the region, have suspended their services in Russia and Belarus.

The Kremlin’s spokesman accused the US of declaring “an economic war” against Russia, but there is a much deadlier form of war that the US is most certainly trying to avoid — nuclear war.

Despite repeated pleas from the Ukrainian government to establish a no-fly zone over their country, the US has declined. Secretary of state Antony Blinken told NBC’s Meet the Press on Sunday: “For everything we’re doing for Ukraine, the president also has a responsibility to not get us into a direct conflict, a direct war, with Russia, a nuclear power, and risk a war that expands even beyond Ukraine to Europe. That’s clearly not our interest. What we’re trying to do is end this war in Ukraine, not start a larger one.”

An extraordinary and still very much developing story coming from this terrible war is one of displacement. UN high commissioner for refugees Filippo Grandi called this the fastest-growing refugee crisis in Europe since the Second World War. The UN reports that more than 2m people have fled Ukraine because of the Russian invasion. The situation changes by the day, even by the hour, but millions more Ukrainians are likely to be displaced within their own country or will need to leave. In the countries bordering Ukraine, refugees have been welcomed with open arms. Countries such as Poland and Slovakia, which have spent many years and millions of euros resisting attempts from people seeking asylum, have reversed course fast enough to give you whiplash.

Explanations for the disparities in treatment abound but despite euphemisms such as ‘neighbours’ and ‘brothers’, I think the difference in European reaction to black and brown refugees and the predominantly white Ukrainian refugees is rooted in white supremacy and the belief that white people’s lives matter more than others.

How about in the US? A case like Sofiia’s could happen again of course, but it remains to be seen how the US would respond if the need arose for a large number of Ukrainian refugees to come here. 

There has been a pathway to asylum in the US for Ukrainians for some years already, not because of the burgeoning war but because of a provision specifically for citizens of countries that made up the former USSR.

The Lautenberg Program is a decades-old family reunification programme that allows Ukrainians already legally residing in the US to bring their family members to the country through the US refugee admissions programme. This programme also carries a lower burden of proof for religious persecution than that set for other refugees, paving the way for many Ukrainian Protestants to make a case that they are discriminated against and deserve asylum.

The Washington Post reports that in 2019, the final year of the Trump administration, notorious for its racist slashing of refugee numbers: “Ukrainians outnumbered Syrian refugee arrivals in the United States 8 to 1. They outnumbered Afghans nearly 4 to 1, Sudanese 12 to 1, and Somalis 19 to 1.”

There are new protections for Ukrainians in the US too. Those who arrived on or before March 1, 2022, can apply for temporary protected status (TPS) — offered with incredible speed by the Biden administration.

“Russia’s premeditated and unprovoked attack on Ukraine has resulted in an ongoing war, senseless violence, and Ukrainians forced to seek refuge in other countries,” homeland security secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said in a statement.

“In these extraordinary times, we will continue to offer our support and protection to Ukrainian nationals in the United States.”

TPS status will allow them to legally live and work in the US for the next 18 months and can be extended if they cannot safely live back home in Ukraine. TPS is typically offered to citizens of countries suffering from natural disasters or armed conflict, and Ukraine joins nations such as Haiti, Syria, and Somalia. 

Of course, it’s a sad list to be on but it affords the citizens of those countries some measure of security and protection in the US.

As Sofiia and her children learned this week, the US is rarely a safe harbour for those who need one. It is a fortress heavily guarded by people and policies, choosing who to protect and who to leave to their fate outside its walls. How other Ukrainians will fare could be different and, in fact, it must be, for them and anyone seeking safety. Asylum is a human right, no matter what country you are from. Denying that right to any one of us bludgeons all of our humanity.

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