Americans More Accepting of Refugees From Ukraine Than Middle East, Central America, New Data Finds

YouGov in collaboration with NBCLX surveyed 2,000 U.S. adults about whether the U.S. should take in refugees from Ukraine, El Salvador, Syria and Afghanistan.

This article was updated on March 25, 2022, at 3:56 p.m. ET.

As the Russia-Ukrainian conflict surpasses the one-month mark, over 3.5 million Ukrainians have fled the violence. Most of them have traveled to fellow European countries, but on Wednesday, President Biden announced the U.S. would admit as many as 100,000 Ukrainians. Biden also plans to meet with Ukrainian refugees in Poland this weekend.

It turns out most Americans would be supportive of the move to take in Ukrainian refugees, especially in comparison to taking in refugees from other parts of the world, such as Central America and the Middle East, according to data gathered from 2,000 U.S. adults by YouGov in collaboration with NBCLX.

What the survey on Americans' views on Ukrainian refugees found

In a poll of random sample of 500 Americans (stratified by gender, race, age, education, geographic region and voter registration), 61% of respondents said the U.S. should take in Ukrainian refugees while 17% said it shouldn't. In another poll of 500, 46% of respondents said the U.S. should take in refugees from Afghanistan, and 29% said it should not.

Two more polls of 500 U.S. adults each looked at respondents' views on refugees from Syria and El Salvador. About 46% said the U.S. should take in refugees from Syria and 32% said it should not. For El Salvador, 40% of respondents said the U.S. should take in refugees, and 31% said it should not.

"What’s clear is that there is more support among Americans for accepting refugees fleeing violence from Ukraine than from Afghanistan, Syria or El Salvador," explained Carl Bialik, U.S. politics editor at YouGov America, via email.

"Democrats’ support was largely the same for refugees from each of the four countries," he added. "There was a more pronounced difference among Republicans: 48% said they would support accepting Ukrainian refugees, compared to just 19% to 32% for each of the other three countries."

Looking at generational splits, the support for Syrian (42%) or El Salvadorian (36%) refugees among adults 45 and older is much lower than it is for adults 18 to 44 (51% and 45%, respectively). No generation had a bigger discrepancy in refugee support than seniors 65 and up had between Ukrainian refugees (70% support) and those from Syria (33%) or El Salvador (35%).

Why are Americans more welcoming to Ukrainian refugees?

Once the refugee crisis in Ukraine began, headlines about racism relating to the conflict followed. Africans in Ukraine reported being turned away or facing longer delays when seeking safety. And numerous journalists and politicians have been criticized for implying that violence in countries with predominantly non-white populations is more acceptable than in European ones.

But to understand average Americans' views on refugees, as the survey tried to capture, it's important to acknowledge a couple of things. First, while El Salvador has one of the world's highest violent crime rates, the Syrian Civil War is raging on, and the Taliban has reclaimed power in Afghanistan, Ukraine has been undoubtedly getting the most coverage, which might've led more respondents to say the U.S. should take in Ukrainian refugees versus the other countries'.

"We call it a recency bias," explained Robert Adelman, Ph.D., professor of sociology at University at Buffalo. "Right now, the war [in Ukraine] is going on, so you might have done the same survey a year ago or two years in the future, and there'll be different contours to the findings."

"On the other hand, I do think, to some extent, it's a reflection of the history that the United States has with these countries and ongoing perceptions of the people that come from these countries," he added.

Second, the past century and a half of United States immigration law may also inform Americans' views today, according to Katy Arnold, Ph.D., director of the Refugee and Forced Migration Studies program at DePaul University.

"The very foundation of federal immigration law is rooted in racism," she said, pointing to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the first federal legislation that prohibited immigration for a specific nationality. "It instituted basically a tolerance ... for racism at that time."

More restrictions on immigration followed, including the Immigration Act of 1924, which established national origin quotas, limiting the number of immigrants who could be accepted from a given country, including Eastern Europeans. Asians were completely excluded.

Arnold said the "overt" racism of U.S. immigration laws became "a little more neutral-seeming" in 1965 when national origin quotas were abolished. However, another shift occurred in 1996 and the years that followed as two new groups of immigrants came under scrutiny. "One ... is, especially after 9/11, young men from countries associated with terrorism, and we haul them in without proof, and the definition of terrorism allows us to do that. ... [The other is] Central Americans being targeted disproportionately for detention and deportation."

According to Adelman, immigration policy "intersects" with contemporary race relations within the U.S. "Immigrants change the meaning of race and ethnicity over time. Yet somehow, the United States still has dramatic racial inequality," he said.

For Arnold, the most important takeaway from the survey is to stop comparing ourselves to other ethnic groups or other ethnic groups with each other.

"So many people can relate to these histories of diaspora and exile," she said. "Until we connect on those issues and don't think one counts more than the other, that's when we'll be able to truly be there for each other."