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Republicans Who Attacked Refugees Under Trump Are Pivoting for Ukrainians

The U.S. should extend welcome to Syrians, Afghans, Yemenis, Central Americans, and others fleeing violence.

Sen. Lindsey Graham speaks during a news conference with Senate Republicans about the Russian invasion of Ukraine, at the U.S. Capitol on March 2, 2022, in Washington, D.C.

Part of the Series

As the Russian onslaught against Ukraine intensified last week, 42 senators asked the Biden administration to extend Temporary Protected Status (TPS) to the tens of thousands of Ukrainians currently living in the U.S. on temporary visas.

TPS, which was created by Congress in 1990, has, over the decades since then, been used to offer temporary residency and work permits to people already in the U.S. from a country deemed too dangerous or chaotic to return to safely. In recent years, it has mainly been utilized by people fleeing political and gang violence in Central America.

The request to extend TPS to Ukrainians was marketed as “bipartisan,” but in reality all but two of the senators who supported it were Democrats. Yet, even though few Republicans signed the letter requesting an extension of TPS, support for Ukrainians fleeing the Russian attack does seem to be genuinely widespread throughout both major political parties. Only a handful of Republican legislators have pushed back against expressions of support for Ukrainian people in the face of military attacks from Russia.

Three days after the letter was sent, on March 3, the Biden administration announced that it would, indeed, extend the TPS program, which the senators estimated would cover roughly 30,000 Ukrainians who were in the country as of March 1. Since TPS was not designed as a formal part of the refugee resettlement program, however, it wouldn’t cover arrivals after March 1, meaning the huge numbers of Ukrainians now fleeing by train, bus, car and on foot into refugee camps in eastern Europe will likely have to go through a much longer resettlement process if they want to eventually end up in the United States. They will, however, in the coming years almost certainly face an easier pathway into the country than did the waves of refugees from the Syrian civil war during the Trump presidency.

The growing consensus in the U.S. and in Europe — that Western countries have a moral obligation to help Ukrainian refugees fleeing the artillery, missile and tank bombardment — is a welcome one.

But it is a travesty that the U.S. has not extended the same welcome to Syrians, Afghans, Iraqis, Yemenis, Central Americans, and others fleeing mass violence — either state-sponsored or at the hands of cartels — desperate poverty and societal collapse.

As several commentators have already noted, many Republicans who are currently calling for the U.S. to welcome in Ukrainians supported Trump’s zero-admissions policies against Syrians, Iraqis and Yemenis, and also supported Trump’s efforts to uproot TPS protections for Hondurans, El Salvadorans and Haitians.

Last week, Maribel Hastings and David Torres of the pro-immigration reform organization America’s Voice, wrote a scathing op-ed in Spanish about the hypocrisy of GOP legislators who waged war on TPS throughout the Trump years and yet are now loudly advocating its use during this crisis. “In the recent past,” the authors wrote, “they have done everything in their power to ensure that immigrants from communities of color are not welcomed but rather, the contrary. They want sufficient obstacles to be put in place to dissuade them from coming to the United States, despite the fact that decades of violence in their countries is the most latent threat to their lives and the lives of their families.”

The U-turn regarding refugees from Ukraine also stands in stunning contrast to the ways in which much of Europe, in recent years, battened down its hatches against Syrian and Afghan migrants — the former suffering unspeakable atrocities at the hands of President Bashar al-Assad and the Russian army on the one side, and Islamic fundamentalist groups such as ISIS on the other; and the latter caught between the violence of a U.S.-led occupation and the cruelty of a Taliban insurgency. Europe also went out of its way to clamp down on asylum seekers fleeing violence from elsewhere in the Middle East, Asia and Africa.

As recently as November, Poland sent heavily armed border guards to stop Afghan refugees from crossing into its territory. From 2015 on, as the Syrian refugee crisis escalated, Hungary tear-gassed, imprisoned and otherwise brutalized refugee men, women and children. Denmark made life so inhospitable to refugees that last year, barely 1,500 people applied to stay in the country under that designation. In the U.K., Boris Johnson’s xenophobic government has spent the past several years designing ever-harsher legislation intended to criminalize and to punish asylum seekers.

Now, suddenly, these same countries are absorbing lighter-skinned Ukrainian refugees without activating the same policing regimes they generally deploy against refugees of color. At the same time, however, Africans and Asians who had been living within Ukraine, and often studying at universities there, are reporting racist treatment and barriers both within Ukraine and in some of the countries they are fleeing to. The disparity in how the welcome mat is rolled out, depending on the color of one’s skin and the country of one’s origin, continues even under bombardment.

Already, close to 2 million Ukrainians have crossed into neighboring countries. Many remain in those borderlands: in Poland — where over 1 million arrivals are being processed — in Romania, Moldova, Hungary and Slovakia. Others are continuing their journey westward. Germany, in particular, has, as it did at the start of the Syrian refugee crisis, once again opened its doors to those fleeing conflict. In France, even the fascist, anti-immigrant National Front leader Marine Le Pen, who previously was a die-hard fan of Vladimir Putin’s, has advocated taking in refugees from the war.

Could these shifts signal a flicker of more universally humanistic empathy from politicians in the U.S. and Europe? If so, it is as of yet only a flicker. In the U.S., deportations under the guise of public health continue under Title 42, despite the March 4 court ruling that narrows its use. In Denmark, the country continues in its efforts to deport Syrian refugees. In Australia, the anti-immigrant government continues to hold asylum seekers in a network of detention centers, albeit in lower numbers than was the case a few years ago. And across much of Europe, governments continue to crack down on aid organizations that provide assistance to those seeking asylum.

It remains to be seen whether many of these countries will, over the coming years, prove willing to alter entrenched racist practices to extend a similar empathy to more racially marginalized refugees who have lost everything at the hands of the powerful.

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