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

Bickham Mendez’s research explores ways in which the lives of everyday people 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” forthcoming later this year.

Jennifer Bickham Mendez
Jennifer Bickham Mendez (Photo by Pablo Yanez)

Bickham Mendez co-directs a border studies program in which students and faculty spend a week on the U.S.-Mexico border learning first-hand about immigration issues from those whose lives and work are shaped by their powerful effects.

As the Russian war against Ukraine entered its second month and U.S. President Joe Biden announced the U.S. will accept up to 100,000 displaced Ukrainian people, W&M News asked Bickham Mendez to talk about forced migration.

Q: What should Americans expect now that U.S. will accept up to 100,000 Ukrainian refugees?

A: While the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the exodus of an estimated 4 million people from the country has captured the world’s attention, international migration and the mass displacement of people are nothing new in our globally interconnected world.

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

Indeed, after falling in April 2020, “migrant encounters” at the U.S. border — a key indicator that officials use to measure immigration rates — have reached a 21-year high, according to  the Pew Research Center and data from U.S. Customs and Border Protection.  

Q: Was the U.S.’s announcement a surprise?

A: Somewhat. While the Biden administration has recently announced that the U.S. will welcome 100,000 Ukrainians and others affected by the war, in the second year of the pandemic, other groups of desperate people, such as the 17,000 displaced Haitians fleeing political turmoil following the assassination of President Jovenal Moise and both 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 U.S.-Mexican border — even those who present themselves to officials seeking asylum protection — 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 is only in the last day that the administration has announced that it plans to lift Title 42, effective in May of this year.

Both announcements are certainly welcome news for those who champion the rights of the persecuted and displaced, but they still raise questions about who we in the U.S. see as deserving of protection and refuge.

Q: What do you mean?

A: Since the start of the pandemic and well before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the U.S.-Mexican border has witnessed soaring numbers of border crossings with U.S. Customs and Border Protection reporting a record high of  1.7 million border crossings at the end of fiscal year 2021 — a level that we have not seen for over twenty years.

And in September of that year, the U.S. media circulated shocking images of thousands of displaced Haitian people living in squalid conditions in encampments in Del Rio, Texas, as they waited to attempt to cross the border.  The images of Border Patrol agents on horseback pushing back throngs of desperate Haitian men, women and children sparked criticisms of the inhumane treatment of a group of highly vulnerable, displaced people. In 2021 the United States moved to expel over 12,000 Haitian people, sending six flights at a time of Haitians seeking refuge, back to a country ravaged by political violence.

According to U.S. Customs and Border Protection, in fiscal year 2021 over one million migrants were expeditiously returned either to Mexico or their country of origin as Title 42 expulsions. Those removed were expelled without being given the chance to request asylum.  Under U.S. law those fleeing persecution and forms of harm have the right to request asylum — a protection that has not been upheld since the institution of Title 42.

Q: Do you have any insight on Ukrainians currently queuing up at the Mexican border to enter the U.S.?

A: During times of war and global crisis international borders emerge as key sites where we most clearly see how geopolitical turmoil and global economic upheavals play out in people’s everyday lives. Despite the great physical distance between the U.S.-Mexican border and Russia and Ukraine, it comes as no surprise that we are currently seeing massive numbers of Russian and Ukrainian would-be asylum seekers congregating at U.S. points of entry in what has become the latest humanitarian crisis to take shape in the U.S.-Mexican borderlands.

Q: Anything else you’d like to add for people to know about this type of forced migration?

A: My hope is that the welcome news the U.S. will welcome those affected by the war in the Ukraine will also raise awareness about the plight of other displaced people seeking refuge.

As experts in international migration 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 meanings, their colloquial use — calling those fleeing war in the Ukraine “refugees,” but those fleeing state and gang violence in El Salvador “illegal immigrants” — reinforces a prioritization of some people’s lives over others.

Editor’s note: Democracy is one of four cornerstone initiatives in W&M’s Vision 2026 strategic plan. Visit the Vision 2026 website to learn more.

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