Treating all refugees equally

In the late ‘70s, hundreds of thousands of South Vietnamese fled their war-ravaged homeland following the end of the Vietnam War. That led to the Refugee Act of 1980, which provided the first statutory basis for asylum and created the Office of Refugee Resettlement. In the 40+ years since, the languages, the skin tones, and the media coverage has changed, but one constant remains: people flee their homes. Refugees need help.

There are more than 84 million people displaced around the world. Russia launched air strikes and declared war on Georgia in 2008. Vladimir Putin’s forces invaded eastern Ukraine in 2014. Some refugees who left their countries then are still displaced. Our collective focus is understandably on Ukrainian refugees displaced by Russia’s most recent aggression right now. In August 2021 a humanitarian crisis struck Afghanistan. Hundreds of thousands of Afghans were newly displaced. I say “newly” because the more than 300,000 displaced Afghans were in addition to the nearly six million driven out of their home country by poverty and violence in recent decades. A month later, we focused our attention on Haitian asylum seekers near Del Rio, Texas. These and millions of other displaced people continue to struggle as media attention shifts. Their needs don’t change even as our focus does.

Our empathy must be able to walk and chew gum at the same time. Care for one does not warrant a lack of care for another. A dedication of resources for one does not lessen the need of another. We must be able to expand our hearts and examine our approach, our motivations, and our rationale. Human psychology shows us we are driven toward those who look, sound, and think like us. We see others as, well, others. The public response to refugees from Ukraine has been heart-warming, the extensive media coverage encouraging. It illustrates our capacity to extend care and tangible resources to those suffering beyond our borders. This united response can set the bar for how we respond to other national and international crises and conflict. The question is: how do we as individuals determine which victims are deserving of our sympathy, empathy, support, and aid?

Immigration, refugee resettlement and asylum aren’t reserved for the few. The Refugee Act of 1980 provided a “permanent and systematic procedure for the admission of refugees of special humanitarian concern to the United States and to provide comprehensive and uniform provisions for those refugees who are admitted.” Over the past two years, asylum in the U.S. has been blocked by a provision called Title 42, a Trump-era policy enacted to avoid the spread of COVID-19. It turns away, or “expels”, migrants, refugees, and asylum seekers without due process. Last year more than 1 million people fleeing threats to their lives and seeking safety in the U.S. were expelled under the policy. This year, more than half a million. Yet public health experts have repeatedly affirmed that the policy is not necessary to protect public health.

Unlike other groups, Ukrainians were previously granted exemptions to Title 42, with little political infighting. What drew the outrage was not the Ukrainian exemption to Title 42. It’s the CDC’s planned lifting of Title 42 on May 23 which would let the others—people of various races, religions, nationalities—once again seek asylum. Keep in mind, letting people seek asylum isn’t an act of charity. It’s merely adherence to US and international law. People who arrive in the United States fleeing war, violence and persecution may request asylum and should be given the chance to make the case that they have a credible fear of persecution or fear for their lives if they return to their country of origin. Lifting Title 42 will help reestablish the US asylum system. Both the Administration and Congress should oppose efforts to maintain Title 42 and should support an effective US asylum system for all who qualify.

As we rightly respond with great empathy and support for the people fleeing the war in Ukraine, we can’t turn away from the millions of others who have fled their homes and now live in camps and settlements around the world. They also deserve our help. And those who request asylum in the US deserve an opportunity to make their case. Our empathy can and must extend to all who need it.

The writer is the Executive Director of the Jesuit Refugee Service.

Their needs don’t change even as our focus does.

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