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America Welcomes More Than 100,000 Ukrainian Refugees. Let’s Think Bigger.

America’s treatment of Ukrainian refugees is a reminder of our own ability to be compassionate. Our treatment of other refugees shows we still have a way to go.

By Gerry Todd

Let me paint a picture: your country is under attack by another country that’s much bigger and more powerful than your own. You’ve been lucky though, or at least, lucky by the standards of people for whom the previous sentence is true. For starters, you haven’t already been killed, and under the circumstances that really is a great start. You know people for whom that hasn’t been the case. Second, what is perhaps miraculously lucky, people in other big and powerful countries care that you’re under attack, and have magnanimously offered you a place in theirs. Halfway across the world, the president of the United States has declared how much he wants to help and you, taking him at his word, book a flight–to Tijuana.

This might seem strange, but for tens of thousands of Ukrainian refugees, joining the other asylum seekers on America’s southern border was the best option they had. You see, due in part to cuts by the Trump administration, and in part due to a much longer trend of US policy towards refugees (telling them to kick rocks), our country’s ability to take in large numbers of refugees on short notice is distinctly lacking.

That’s a problem. The kinds of emergencies that tend to create lots of refugees – war, famine, natural disasters–are hardly scheduled well in advance. To take care of refugees fast enough to actually help, we need to be able to respond with an infrastructure that already exists, not build one up from scratch. Whether people are fleeing a hurricane, a tsunami, or Vladimir Putin, you can’t just say, Hold up, we’ll be happy to help you in a few months.”

Thankfully for some, the Biden administration is putting more resources into resettling refugees and accepting refugees from Ukraine faster and with less strict standards than refugees from other countries. Which is great—people fleeing for their lives don’t always have the luxury of keeping perfect documentation.

But the tremendous amount of effort that is being put towards helping Ukrainians also raises the question: why help them when we’ve done so little for refugees from other countries? One can’t help but notice the double standard when white refugees are fast tracked through the system while brown and black people coming from Latin America and the Caribbean are rundown on horseback, caged, and shot for trying to pass through the same border.

One might say that the difference between Ukraine and refugees from other parts of the world is that Ukraine is at war, but they’re not the only people that’s true for. The U.N Council on Foreign Relations maintains a website with a map tracking conflict around the globe, and the war in Ukraine is one of many – in fact, a keen eye might note a couple dots above Iraq and Afghanistan, countries that we had a big role in destabilizing, and yet we’re prioritizing Ukrainian refugees over them.


And armed conflicts aren’t the only things that push people to become refugees. Someone bombing your apartment building creates an obvious need to leave, but if you can’t find food or medicine, or if you’re trying to escape gang violence, is that really any less dire? Obviously not, but if you look at how the United States has treated its neighbors to the south, it’s hard to argue that our country actually believes it.

If anything, we have a greater sense of duty to people who live near us. While it’s certainly admirable that we’ve taken such a strong stand that Ukrainians should be admitted as refugees, presumably a Ukrainian would prefer staying in nearby Poland or Germany, rather than flying halfway across the world. Similarly, it’s much easier for South and Central American refugees to get to the United States than it is for them to seek shelter in the United Kingdom.  

We’re their best bet.

The war in Ukraine should be a lesson to us that the world can be a brutal and unpredictable place, and sometimes you need somewhere safe to run to. Countries like the United States have a duty to be that place, and for that we need to make lasting changes to our immigration system.

That’s easier said than done though, and it’ll take years if not decades, but the situation with Ukraine is a good lesson on how to start. The war in Ukraine has been one of the biggest news stories on the planet, and Americans, having seen the horrors of that war, want to help.

It’s easy to be jaded about America these days, but when something gets our attention we can still be a force for good. To harness that goodness, you just have to keep our attention. Seattle’s Ethiopian community knows that, and has been working to bring attention to the problems in their home country. When it comes to making change in immigration, the first battle, and the most important battle, is showing the humanity of the people who need our help.

The rest will come naturally.

Gerry Todd ’23 is a Whitman College Politics major from Seattle, Washington. He wrote this Op-Ed in the fall of 2022 as a student in Professor Shampa Biswas’s course, Global Politics of the War in Ukraine.

Published on May 19, 2023
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