W&M sociology professor discusses the context surrounding the flight of Ukrainians

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by staff

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April 1, 2022

Jennifer Bickham Mendez is a professor of sociology at William & Mary. Her research focuses on immigration and belonging, Latin/Latina studies, border and globalization studies, as well as gender and labor movements.

Bickham Mendez’s research explores the ways in which ordinary people’s lives are caught up in cross-border forces, including economic globalization. She is co-editor of the 2015 anthology “Border Politics: Social Movements, Collective Identity, and Globalization”, as well as “Latinx Belonging: Community Building and Resilience in the United States” to be released later this year.

Bickham Mendez co-directs a Border Studies program in which students and faculty spend a week at the US-Mexico border to learn first-hand about immigration issues from those whose lives and work are shaped by its powerful effects.

As Russia’s war on Ukraine entered its second month and US President Joe Biden announced that the United States would accept up to 100,000 displaced Ukrainians, W&M News asked Bickham Mendez to talk about forced migration.

What should Americans expect now that the United States will accept up to 100,000 Ukrainian refugees?

While the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the exodus of an estimated 4 million people from the country captured the world’s attention, international migration and the mass displacement of people is nothing new in our interconnected world. global scale.

According to the United Nations, despite some growth limits due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the number of international migrants – people living outside their country of origin – reached 281 million people in 2020, compared to 221 million in 2010. and 173 million in 2000.

Indeed, after plummeting in April 2020, “immigrant encounters” at the U.S. border — a key indicator authorities use to measure immigration rates — have hit a 21-year high, according to the Pew Research Center and U.S. Customs and Border Protection data. .

Was the US announcement a surprise?

Somewhat. While the Biden administration recently announced that the United States would take in 100,000 Ukrainians and other war-affected people in the second year of the pandemic, other groups of desperate people, like the 17,000 displaced Haitians fleeing the political unrest following the assassination of President Jovenal Moise and the economic and natural disaster in their country have faced a closed door.

Under a public health order known as Title 42, issued by the Trump administration in March 2020, migrants apprehended at the US-Mexico border – even those who present themselves to authorities seeking asylum – have been turned away. With the exception of the recent announcement regarding those affected by the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the Biden administration had kept this provision in place.

It was only on the last day that the administration announced plans to lift Title 42, starting in May this year.

These two announcements are certainly good news for those who defend the rights of persecuted and displaced people, but they still raise questions about who in the United States deserves protection and refuge.

What do you mean?

Since the start of the pandemic and long before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the US-Mexico border has seen an increase in the number of border crossings, with US Customs and Border Protection reporting a record 1.7 million border crossings at the end of fiscal year 2021 — a level we haven’t seen in over twenty years.

And in September of that year, US media released shocking images of thousands of displaced Haitians living in squalid conditions in encampments in Del Rio, Texas, as they waited to attempt to cross the border. Images of Border Patrol agents on horseback pushing back crowds of desperate Haitian men, women and children have sparked criticism of the inhumane treatment of a highly vulnerable group of displaced people. In 2021, the United States decided to deport more than 12,000 Haitians, sending six flights at a time of Haitians seeking refuge, to a country wracked by political violence.

According to U.S. Customs and Border Protection, in fiscal year 2021, more than one million migrants were expeditiously returned to either Mexico or their home countries as deportations under of Title 42. Those returned were deported without having had the opportunity to seek asylum. Under U.S. law, those fleeing persecution and forms of harm have the right to seek asylum — a protection that has not been maintained since the institution of Title 42.

Do you have any information on Ukrainians currently queuing at the Mexican border to enter the United States?

In times of war and global crisis, international borders emerge as key sites where we most clearly see how geopolitical unrest and global economic upheaval play out in people’s daily lives. Despite the great physical distance between the US-Mexico border and Russia and Ukraine, it is no surprise that we are currently seeing massive numbers of Russian and Ukrainian asylum seekers congregating at US ports of entry in this which has become the latest humanitarian crisis operation to take shape in the US-Mexico border regions.

Do you have anything else to add to let people know about this type of forced migration?

I hope the good news that the United States will welcome those affected by the war in Ukraine will also raise awareness of the plight of other displaced people seeking refuge.

As international migration experts have pointed out, even the language we use to describe those who come to our shores and borders conveys messages about how we understand their suffering. While terms like “refugee” and “economic migrant” have legal significance, their colloquial use – calling those fleeing war in Ukraine “refugees,” but those fleeing state and gang violence in El Salvador” illegal immigrants” – reinforces the prioritization of some people’s lives over others.

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