Refugees of color wish they could get the Ukrainian treatment

Columnist Solomon Jones examines the differences in American policies for immigrants and refugees from Black and brown countries and Ukraine.

Afghan refugees are processed inside Hangar 5 at the Ramstein U.S. Air Base in Germany

Afghan refugees are processed inside Hangar 5 at the Ramstein U.S. Air Base in Germany. (Olivier Douliery/Pool Photo via AP)

I’ve watched, brokenhearted, as Russia has relentlessly attacked Ukrainian cities, and I’ve tried to imagine the horror as I’ve read the reports of the mass graves left behind.

I’m not alone in recoiling from the cruelty of the unprovoked attacks. All of America has witnessed the devastation, and our nation has responded with an outpouring of compassion. Fundraisers have sprung up both online and on the streets. News outlets have focused an around-the-clock spotlight on Ukraine. And just last month, President Joe Biden signed a funding bill that included $13.6 billion for everything from military equipment and training for Ukraine’s military to money for Ukrainian refugees.

The help is desperately needed, and America’s response is laudable. I’m proud that America is opening its doors to 100,000 Ukrainian refugees who are fleeing the carnage in their country. I’m impressed that Philadelphia—a city with a thriving Ukrainian community—will be a destination for thousands of those refugees.  But as proud as I am to see American generosity on display at a time when the world needs to see it, I am also ashamed, because for refugees and immigrants of color, the response to Ukraine emphasizes the racism undergirding America’s immigration policies.

Some might believe that only right-wing administrations have put restrictions on immigration from countries with Black and brown inhabitants. After all, we all saw then-presidential candidate Donald Trump descending an escalator to declare that Mexico was sending criminals and rapists to America. And when he was elected, Trump followed that rhetoric up with policies focused on keeping brown people out of the country.

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The bias against non-white immigrants is not limited to conservatives, however. Even now, the Biden administration is engaged in furious debates over how to address illegal immigration on America’s Southern Border. Black immigrants have also been deprioritized under Biden. His administration has sent 20,000 people back to Haiti—to a country where the president was recently assassinated, where gangs are running the capital city, and where ordinary citizens are running for their lives. Cameroonians are also being deported, even as hundreds of thousands of people there have been displaced by civil war and regional conflicts in the West African country.

Juxtapose such treatment against the Biden administration’s plans to welcome 100,000 Ukrainian refugees and grant protected status to 30,000 others who are already in the country, and one can’t help noticing the disparity.

Here is the reality. America prioritizes white immigrants and refugees over others, and it’s not just a national issue. It is also local.

In Philadelphia, where 25 percent of residents live in poverty, where 950 people live on the streets and another 4750 live pillar-to-post, our leaders are keen to welcome Ukrainian refugees. While that’s a noble position, I’m left to wonder if our priorities are in order.

In a city where the schools don’t have libraries and the poor don’t have services and the unarmed don’t have a prayer, how do we have resources to house thousands of Ukrainian refugees?

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How do we have money to help out Ukrainians when we don’t have money for overcrowded city prisons, underfunded city services, and for solving the hundreds of murders of mostly Black young men?

I understand that there is a strong Ukrainian community in Philadelphia that has resources and institutions of its own to assist the incoming refugees. I understand that Philadelphia has welcomed other immigrant groups, as well. But I also understand that in a city where there is carnage taking place in the streets, we must do more to handle our local issues, even as we extend a helping hand across the globe.

Ukraine is most definitely in trouble, and what’s happening is wrong. But Black and brown refugees have long been denied the help that’s being offered to Ukrainians. I can’t ignore the racism in that—even if I feel bad for Ukraine.

Solomon Jones, host of “Wake Up With WURD,” is the author of 11 books. His latest is “Ten Lives Ten Demands: Life and Death Stories and a Black Activist’s Blueprint for Racial Justice.”

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