The Double Standard for Refugees: a Kind That Doesn’t Side With My Ethnicity

Polis: Center for Politics
4 min readJul 12, 2022

Alessandra Tazoe (PPS ’24)

Alessandra Tazoe (PPS ’24)

Helplessness and fear.

Screaming, blood, and tears.

These sensations may have you thinking about the most recent humanitarian crisis that’s occupying millions of minds: Ukraine. And while this crisis deserves every bit of media attention it is getting, millions of refugees with similar experiences have been met with little international support. Far too often, the U.S. has been selective and hypocritical in their responses to different kinds of refugees. Central American refugees seeking asylum from likened states of crisis have been needing the world’s help for years, and yet the world turns it back on them time and time again. Buildings don’t light up around the world in solidarity for them. When do world leaders commit to protecting the lives and rights of those fleeing abhorrent conditions in Central America? Why do we choose which refugees deserve more of our empathy and aid to their suffering? We must stop selective behaviors and create uniform responses to all refugees, not just ones that look like most white Americans. We need to delve past the superficial nature of societal constructs of race and ethnicity and look towards the humanity within us all, viewing everyone as equals. The U.S. should set a clear-cut standard for how to dictate ‘refugee status’ and responses for the influx of migrants, regardless of skin tone, country of origin, or tongue.

The Biden administration has responded swiftly and positively to the Ukraine crisis. They’ve committed to opening doors for up to 100,000 Ukrainian refugees and extended legal pathway programs to include welcome for those with family already in the U.S. [link] They’ve promised $1 billion in funding towards humanitarian assistance to those affected by the war. [link] It’s heartwarming that positive policy responses are emerging, and to see that the government still has a human condition of sorts. But these types of responses seem to be conditional.

There’s a different tone when it comes to refugees of, well, a different skin tone. For refugees fleeing their homes in Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras, such uniform positive reactions from neighboring countries and their citizens are seldom seen.

The double standard for refugees from the Global North and South is obvious in Trump’s border separation policy separating children from their parents at the border. [link] The tone and rhetoric set by these policies convert refugees into criminals in the public’s eyes. For the 407,000 people that flee these countries annually, on average, policies regarding their safety in host countries are inconsistent and not as welcoming as those for Ukrainian refugees. Instead of announcing open door policies for Central American refugees, the Biden administration has developed proactive programs to address economic insecurity and corruption there. While it addresses the root causes, it doesn’t address the number of people affected right now. Also, only 51% of Americans believe that the U.S. should accept refugees [link]. But then the question is: Where should they go?

There is contention when it comes to differences in policy responses to refugees. While it’s true that what we’re seeing right now in Ukraine is a full-blown war, the crises in Central America are also distressing and inhumane. But when Salvadoreans seek refuge from deep-rooted violence they’re seen as gang members and terrorists. When Guatemalans do so they aren’t seeking opportunities to flee chronic persecution but trying to steal jobs. The root causes may be different, but the severity of issues is quite similar: deaths caused by conflict, the economy being impacted, and violation against human rights.

For years I’ve heard the anti-immigrant rhetoric, felt the heart-crushing defeat of the perpetual foreigner label despite being born in the U.S. Though my family didn’t come seeking refuge, they sought out opportunity, a life better than the one they left behind in Peru. Our experiences may not be comparable to the strenuous conditions of refugees, but we share the constant denial of our identity as being enough for others. It’s not right for people coming from my home’s sister nations to be seen as even less than that because the language we speak or the color of our skin is not ‘the right one.’ It comes down to stereotypes and generalizations that many of us have been fed all our lives. But we must overcome them because of their power to influence policies determining life or death outcomes. If it’s about equality under the eyes of international bodies, I want my body and bodies of those like me to be just as worthy as that of a blue-eyed, blonde-haired individual.

Alessandra Tazoe (PPS ’24) is a Public Policy Undergraduate at Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy. This piece was submitted as an op-ed in the Spring ’22 PUBPOL 301 course. This content does not represent the official or unofficial views of the Sanford School, Polis, Duke University, or any entity or individual other than the author.