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African immigrant advocates point to ‘double standard’ as Ukrainians receive U.S. relief

House members Ayanna Pressley and Mondaire Jones also urged the Biden administration to “extend that same level of compassion” to Haitians in the U.S.
A man carries a child on his shoulders as Haitian migrants cross the Rio Grande river between Mexico and Del Rio, Texas, on Sept. 23, 2021.
A man carries a child on his shoulders as Haitian migrants cross the Rio Grande between Mexico and Del Rio, Texas, on Sept. 23. Pedro Pardo / AFP via Getty Images

After President Joe Biden announced plans to welcome 100,000 Ukrainian refugees to the U.S., African and Caribbean immigrants are questioning why so many Black refugees fleeing their conflict-torn countries have been denied similar humanitarian consideration.

Biden also announced that Ukrainians already in the U.S. would receive Temporary Protected Status, meaning that they would not be deported. That is more, advocates for Black immigrants said, than the country nation has done for Haitians fleeing after a deadly earthquake and their president’s assassination; for Cameroonians displaced by their country’s civil war; and for the thousands of Black immigrants deported under what they call racist, xenophobic immigration policies.

“The reality is that all over the world, unfortunately, there are many people who are experiencing similar things and don’t get that type of urgency from the U.S. government or attention,” said Samah Sisay, a Liberian immigrant who has spent years working as an immigration lawyer and is now with the Center for Constitutional Rights.

“It’s just clear racism. There’s this feeling that Ukrainians are Europeans and therefore, the immigration system maybe doesn’t view them as a threat in the same ways we see conversations about Black migrants,” Sisay said. “You see how there is this double standard.” 

Russia invaded Ukraine last month by land, air and sea, following weeks of tension, sending thousands to various borders seeking to leave the country. African citizens living in Ukraine have reported incidents of racist discrimination and abuse at the country’s borders, including beatings, being denied entry to trains or being left stranded in border towns.

Reports have highlighted the stark differences between the ways African and Middle Eastern refugees from Ukraine have been welcomed into western Europe compared with white Ukrainians. Last month, an alliance of prominent civil rights lawyers from around the world announced it would file an appeal to the United Nations on behalf of Black refugees facing discrimination while trying to flee the invasion.  

Meanwhile, immigrant advocates and politicians have consistently called for relief for Black immigrants and refugees in the U.S. In the weeks leading up to the conflict in Ukraine, the U.S. halted deportations to Ukraine and U.S. Reps. Ayanna Pressley, D-Mass., and Mondaire Jones, D-N.Y., urged the administration in a letter to “extend that same level of compassion” to Haitians in the U.S. 

The U.S. has deported more than 20,000 Haitians since September, Pressley and Jones noted in their letter. Cameroonians deported in recent years have reported being raped, tortured, jailed and more. 

A spokesperson for the Department of Homeland Security declined to comment on claims of racism and concerns about Cameroon’s lack of TPS designation. 

“TPS designations are decided after careful consideration and consultation with interagency partners,” the DHS spokesperson said in an email statement to NBC News. “Following such consultation and based upon the careful consideration of country conditions that prevent nationals and habitual residents without nationality from returning safely, Secretary [Alejandro] Mayorkas has newly designated, redesignated, or extended existing designations for TPS for a number of countries, and we continue to monitor conditions in various countries across the globe.”

Advocates have said the racial disparities are clear, and have only been made more evident by the well-documented hardships Black immigrants and refugees face in the U.S., including challenges that make it nearly impossible to find security and safety. 

One in 10 Black people in the U.S. are immigrants, and the number is only expected to rise, according to recent data from the Pew Research Center.

Black immigrants are more likely to be deported than immigrants of other races, according to a report from the Black Alliance for Just Immigration. And bond amounts for Black immigrants to leave detention centers and end family separations are routinely higher than those for non-Black immigrants, the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services found.

Because Black communities are far more frequently targeted for arrest and prosecution than the general population, 76 percent of Black immigrants are deported because of contact with police, according to the Black Alliance report.

Sylvie Bello, founder of the Cameroon American Council, a Washington-based organization dedicated to supporting Cameroonian immigrants and refugees, said she’s “not shocked” by the disparities. She said the group is planning to keep protesting for Cameroonian TPS designations. 

“We’ve always known that African, Black people always get the worst of the worst,” Bello said. “Ukraine has TPS after days of conflict, and there’s no Cameroonian TPS after five years. That discrimination should not come as a shock because every other program within American immigration justice is anti-Black, anti-African. … Why is it that Black pain doesn’t meet restitution and immigration relief?”

Refugees and immigrants with Temporary Protected Status can avoid deportation, obtain a work permit and even travel for up to 18 months. TPS designation is usually reserved for countries in an ongoing conflict, experiencing a devastating natural disaster, or “other extraordinary temporary conditions.” Officials announced the TPS designations for Ukraine in early March, with Mayorkas writing, “In these extraordinary times, we will continue to offer our support and protection to Ukrainian nationals in the United States.” 

However, immigrant advocates have noted that the U.S. has not granted Cameroon TPS designations despite years of pressure, and it only updated TPS designations for Haitians last spring. 

Racial disparities regarding refugees from Ukraine are also becoming evident among European leaders. Bulgarian Prime Minister Kiril Petkov told journalists in February, “These are not the refugees we are used to. ... These people are Europeans.”

“In other words, there is not a single European country now which is afraid of the current wave of refugees.”

Some Ukrainians seeking refuge in the U.S. have encountered hardships trying to enter the country at the Mexican border. Ukrainians who said they believed getting into the country would be simple are running into the realities faced by those fleeing violence from Central American countries. Several Ukrainian asylum-seekers have been in holding areas near the border waiting for days to be processed alongside Central American refugees who have waited weeks or longer. 

Although the border is still officially closed to asylum-seekers because of Title 42, a Trump-era Covid policy, a memo last month from the Department of Homeland Security declared Ukrainians exempt from the asylum limits on a case-by-case basis.

In the wake of the decision, immigrant advocates and politicians have urged the Biden administration to end Title 42 expulsions, which, they said, have been disproportionately weaponized against Haitians. The U.S. quickly expelled thousands of Haitians who gathered at a Texas border city after crossing into the U.S. from Mexico.

“It’s not people saying, ‘The government shouldn’t be assisting Ukrainian refugees,’” Sisay said. “It’s saying the same level of care that you’re giving to these folks, why is it that refugees, mainly Black refugees and refugees of color, don’t get that same sort of care and attention when obviously they also are in need?”

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