Inequality Among Refugees in the United States: A Racial Divide

Kathryn Wylie, Dec 22, 2022

Nine months have passed since Russia invaded Ukraine in March of 2022, sending millions of refugees fleeing for their lives to nations willing to take them in. One such nation that made a promise to these refugees, guaranteeing to provide them shelter in their time of need, was the United States. However, this broad acceptance of Ukrainian refugees comes in stark contrast to how the United States government and the American people treat refugees from other regions of the world. Unlike Ukrainian refugees, who the United States has welcomed with open arms, many other refugees fleeing their home countries are not provided the same luxury. This is due to the fact that, unlike many other refugees, Ukrainians are white. The Ukrainian refugee crisis exemplifies the racial disparities in the treatment of white versus non-white refugees in the United States. This reality is due to the fact that Ukrainian refugees face preferential treatment from the United States in their migration process in comparison to POC refugees from other parts of the world, including those from Haiti and Afghanistan. 

The Biden administration responded quickly to the Ukrainian crisis, announcing in March that the United States would accept 100,000 refugees, allow 30,000 who were already in the United States to remain under a Temporary Protected Status, and cease the deportation of all Ukrainian refugees [1]. This broad announcement led many to question why this same action was not being taken in regard to other refugee populations, such as those from Haiti. Congressmembers Mondaire Jones and Ayanna Pressley released a statement calling for the Biden administration to provide Haitians with the same protections as the Ukrainian refugees. Though the Congressmembers acknowledged that in 2021 the administration gave Haitians Temporary Protected Status, the United States also deported over 20,000 refugees back to Haiti. Of these 20,000 refugees, two-thirds were sent back to Haiti due to Title 42 [2]. The Trump administration introduced Title 42 in March of 2020 in response to the Covid-19 pandemic. This regulation sought to prevent individuals from entering the United States if they posed a risk of introducing a communicable disease to the American population [3]. However, when viewed as a tool for comparing the treatment of the two refugee populations, it is clear that the United States abuses Title 42 to further white supremacy by targeting refugees of color. 

In the period between March and May 2022, the United States processed 98.9 percent of the incoming refugees coming from Ukraine via the US-Mexico border. Only 0.6 percent of these Ukrainian refugees were denied entry due to Title 42. However, during this same period, 26.3 percent of Haitian refugees attempting to enter the United States were prevented under Title 42. This discrepancy demonstrates that Haitians are 40 times more likely to be subject to Title 42 than their Ukrainian counterparts [4]. Multiple academics and physicians wrote to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) in September 2021, referring to the regulation as both “scientifically baseless and politically motivated” and “discriminatory and unjustifiable” [5]. The CDC and the Biden administration attempted to repeal Title 42 in May of 2022; however, the policy is still in place today due to a court order, and the United States continues to use the regulation to prevent refugees from being granted shelter [3]. 

In addition to this blatant discrimination by the United States government, the majority of American society is less accepting of non-white, non-Christian refugees than they are of Ukrainian refugees. It has been shown that Americans are far more open to the admission of Ukrainian refugees into the United States than those fleeing Afghanistan. While only 56 percent of Americans favor Afghan refugees into the United States [6], 69 percent are in favor of the United States accepting Ukrainian refugees [7]. Similarly, only 42 percent of Americans are opposed to allowing Afghan refugees entry into the United States [6], but only 29 percent are opposed to Ukrainian refugees entering [7]. Arguably, Americans should be more accepting of Afghan refugees than those from Ukraine due to the United States’ direct contribution to the destabilization of Afghanistan through military intervention. However, that reality does not seem to matter to the American public. 

This fact may be due to the perception of Islam in the United States. 99.8 percent of the citizens within Afghanistan are Muslim versus approximately 1 percent of Americans [8]. Notably, Ukraine is 92 percent Christian [9], while 64 percent of the United States population identifies as Christian [10]. Overall, however, when comparing the various religions within the United States, Americans have been shown to view both atheists and Muslims the most “coldly” [11]. This fact is consistent with the United States’ strong history of blocking refugees from Central Asian countries. President Trump’s 2017 Executive Order which banned travelers from entering the United States from predominantly Muslim countries for 90 days is a prime example [12]. The United States has not initiated a similar ban against Eastern European nations.

The poor and inequitable treatment of refugees in need is, unfortunately, not new to the United States. In 1939, during the early years of World War II, the SS St. Louis arrived in the United States with 900 Jewish refugees fleeing persecution aboard. Initially turned away at Havana, where they would eventually obtain visas to come over to the United States, the refugees attempted to enter the United States through Florida. However, they were once again denied entry and eventually forced to return to Europe. The SS St. Louis’ long journey across the Atlantic and back, unsuccessfully seeking refuge for her passengers, is now known as “The Voyage of the Damned.” Thankfully, the passengers were not forced to go back to Nazi Germany and were accepted by other European nations [13]. Yet, the United States still failed these refugees, and without other nations stepping in, the passengers could have been doomed. The SS St. Louis is a prime example of the United States letting down a marginalized group seeking refuge.

Whether it be today or 80 years ago, hospitality, in an idealistic sense, should be extended to all. But it is not. Compassion for refugees should be extended evenly across the board, regardless of race, religion, or any other dividing concept. The United States’ disproportionate favor bestowed upon Ukraine aside, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is severe in its impact on the nation and its people, and the United States should accept Ukrainian refugees. However, Ukrainian refugees, though facing atrocities, are not better than other refugees due to their skin color and religion. The favor provided to them is unjust, as neither race nor faith are indicators of worth. Though plenty of Americans are already aware of the realities of racial disparities in the United States and are likely unsurprised by the preferential treatment given to Ukrainian refugees, these disparities deserve to be at the forefront of people’s minds. They cannot be swept under the rug. It is unacceptable that black and brown refugees are subjected to such high rates of discrimination.


1. Marcelo, Philip. “In U.S.'s Welcome to Ukrainians, African Refugees See Racial Bias.” PBS News Hour. Public Broadcasting Service, April 1, 2022.  
2. Jones, Mondaire, and Ayanna Pressley. Letter to Secretary Mayorkas and Director Walensky. “Pressley Jones Haiti Deportations Letter.” Washington, DC, March 15, 2022.
3.“A Guide to Title 42 Expulsions at the Border.” American Immigration Council, May 25, 2022. 
4.  “Cerd: US Discrimination against Black Migrants, Refugees and Asylum Seekers at the Border and Beyond.” Human Rights First, August 8, 2022. 
​​5. Backster, Anika, et al. Letter to Secretary Becerra, Director Walensky and Secretary Mayorkas. “Title 42 Letter,” September 21, 2021. 
6. Doherty, Carroll, et al. “3. Biden Administration's Handling of Afghanistan and Views of Accepting Afghan Refugees in the U.S.” Pew Research Center, September 23, 2022. 
7. Doherty, Carroll, et al. “Public Expresses Mixed Views of U.S. Response to Russia's Invasion of Ukraine.” Pew Research Center , March 15, 2022. 
8. “Table: Muslim Population by Country.” Pew Research Center, January 27, 2011. 
9. Sahgal, Neha, et al. “1. Religious Affiliation.” Pew Research Center, May 10, 2022. 
10. Kramer, Stephanie, et al. “Modeling the Future of Religion in America.” Pew Research Center, September 13, 2022. 
11. Alper, Becka A. “4. Feelings toward Religious Groups.” Pew Research Center, July 23, 2019. 
12. “Muslim Travel Ban.” Immigration History. Immigration and Ethnic History Society, January 27, 2017. 
13. Lanchin, Mike. “SS St Louis: The Ship of Jewish Refugees Nobody Wanted.” BBC . BBC News Services, May 13, 2014.