In 2013, as Syrians desperate to escape a brutal war fled the country, Brazil took the remarkable step of instituting an open-door policy for Syrian refugees. Why did Brazil—in contrast to much of the international community—offer asylum to any Syrian who would come? And how do their experiences differ from other refugee populations seeking status in Brazil?

The Color of Asylum offers an ethnographic look at the process of asylum seeking in Brazil, uncovering the different ways asylum seekers are treated and the racial logic behind their treatment. It focuses on two of the largest and most successful groups of asylum seekers: Syrian and Congolese refugees. While the groups obtain asylum in Brazil at roughly equivalent rates, their journey to that status could not be more different, with Congolese refugees enduring significantly greater difficulties at each stage, from arrival through to their treatment by Brazilian officials. Syrians, meanwhile, receive better treatment because the Brazilian state sees them as white, in a nation that has historically privileged white immigration. However, regardless of their country of origin, even migrants who do secure asylum status find their lives remain extremely difficult, marked by struggle and discrimination.



Advance Praise for The Color of Asylum

Grounded on an impressive array of archival data, legal materials, and the keenest of ethnographies, The Color of Asylum renders accessible the complexities of the asylum bureaucracy. With subtlety and thoughtfulness, and weaving specificity with larger trends, Jensen shows us that even in the inclusive policy context of Brazil, racial logics structure how asylum is understood and experienced and how racialized hierarchies are produced through bureaucratic practices. This beautifully written book is a critical contribution and a must-read. I highly recommend it.

Cecilia Menjívar
Dorothy L. Meier Social Equities Chair and Professor of Sociology
University of California, Los Angeles

With clarity and ethnographic rigor, The Color of Asylum documents how Brazil’s seemingly open asylum policy follows the historical racial project of the nation-state. Asylum seekers read as white are treated with dignity, while those framed as Black are subjected to indignities. I highly recommend this book to readers interested in race matters in Latin America as well as to race scholars in general.

Eduardo Bonilla-Silva
James B. Duke Distinguished Professor of Sociology
Duke University

Brazil’s high rate of granting asylum to Syrians and Congolese superficially suggests that a racial democracy is protecting refugees. Jensen’s ethnographic deep dive shows that underneath the surface of simple statistics and public pronouncements, the asylum process is saturated with racial inequalities.


While Brazil can rightfully boast of a generous refugee policy, the workings of its asylum process reveal the country’s institutional and interpersonal racism. Katherine Jensen’s Color of Asylum follows Syrian and Congolese escapees from their country’s wars to incisively describe how Brazil’s asylum system differentially treats the two groups. This is the latest chapter in Brazil’s long, fascinating, and racialized immigration history.

Edward telles
distinguished professor of sociology
university of california, irvine