The United States Needs More Than Just Higher Refugee Caps; It Needs To Overhaul Refugee Resettlement Itself

May 26, 2021 | Article
Travis Sanderson

On April 16, 2021, Joe Biden reversed course from his original position and announced in remarks that he would keep the refugee cap at 15,000 – the same historically-low number set by Donald Trump. Rightfully, the President faced immense backlash for that decision, particularly from elected officials who are DSA members. Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) called the announcement a “disgraceful decision,” and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) tweeted that “upholding the xenophobic and racist policies of the Trump admin, incl the historically low + plummeted refugee cap, is flat out wrong.”

The White House pivoted quickly and announced the Administration would, in fact, increase the refugee cap. Further blowback resulted in the White House’s May 3 announcement that the cap would be raised further, to 62,500. The reversal is an important shift, one that will benefit thousands of people and families fleeing war and persecution, but the reversal is insufficient. The refugee cap must be expanded, particularly as major refugee communities like Dadaab are closed and regimes like Ethiopia’s conduct ethnic cleansing in Tigray. Raising the refugee cap does not address the fundamental contradiction embedded in the refugee resettlement program since its inception – that of humanitarian promise versus politicized implementation. To actually practice a humanitarian refugee policy, we must overhaul the system of refugee resettlement completely to cut off its Cold War and exploitative roots and embrace a truly equitable resettlement process. The task is necessary but not easy. Making the resettlement process actually humanitarian requires not only massively expanding the support infrastructure for refugees, but also abolition of the anti-Black caste system in America.

In the Refugee Act of 1980, the conditions of refugee resettlement were enshrined in American law. A number of obligations of the state to refugees were outlined. Not only must the state provide for refugees’ roads to economic self-sufficiency, but the state must take into account the need for resources that allow refugees to prosper. These needs include, but are not limited to, mental health counseling and access to education. Refugees are entitled to these positive rights contingent upon their acceptance to be resettled in the United States.

In exchange for that promise, the state has reaped the benefits of soft power ever since the Act was passed. That was particularly the case during the Cold War. Every refugee accepted was another bullet in the barrel of the gun of soft power pointed toward the Soviet Union. These refugees accepted under the protocol of the Refugee Act were nearly invariably those displaced by the imposition of regimes antithetical to U.S. interests.  This was especially the case for refugees fleeing from ostensibly Communist governments, as in Cuba, Vietnam, and Cambodia. Meanwhile, the state denied the benefits of refugee status to huge swathes of people fleeing political repression or war in the Caribbean and Central America, where displacement was instigated by direct and indirect U.S. intervention and the propagation of the American imperial war machine. Haitians, Salvadorans, and Hondurans fleeing state violence were labeled economic migrants and denied resettlement or asylum. Instead of asylum, they were wrapped into the complex web of immigration law and subjected to its whims.

In other words, the declaration of refugee status has always been a political act. Refugees have been permitted entrance to the United States to serve the interests of the U.S. government, with little regard for refugees’ lives and motivations and identities and complexities. During the Cold War, that norm led to a bifurcation of displaced people. Often, refugees were those displaced by communism; economic migrants were those displaced by anything else. Since the Cold War ended, that has changed – even as the White House has shifted the basic nebulous definitions of refugee and migrant according to its own interests.

The President did not specifically articulate why the Trump-era refugee caps were maintained at first, but some insiders indicated the reason had to do with fear in the White House of appearing “too soft” in the face of migrants seeking asylum at the country’s southern border. Biden’s conflation of refugees with migrants to defend a political action plays into the same opportunism that has always been built into the state’s practice of refugee resettlement. There is no Cold War now, no way to see the conflation as simply one tool in the arsenal of anti-Soviet weapons. There is, from the perspective of the government bureaucracy, no similarity between refugees seeking to be resettled and migrants seeking to enter the United States (even if, in many cases, the “migrants” at the border meet the definition of refugee as laid out in the 1951 Refugee Convention, as is the case with Hondurans fleeing mass violence instigated by the 2009 coup aided and abetted by the U.S. Defense Department). Refugee resettlement and migrants at the country’s physical border are managed by entirely separate government bodies. The Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) in the Department of Health and Human Services manages refugees who apply for asylum from abroad, the subjects of the refugee cap, while the Department of Homeland Security formed to combat terrorism manages the border (implicitly conflating migrants crossing the border with terrorism). Entirely different departments, entirely different personnel, entirely different processes.

The President is quite aware of the fact that, in the government’s eyes, refugees and migrants are as separate as night and day. The President is aware that, bureaucratically speaking, the federal government has more than enough capacity to prioritize both refugee resettlement and the humanitarian treatment of people seeking to enter the United States through the southern border. Since there is no logistical connection, the President’s conflation to support the Administration’s narrow policy interest in limiting the number of nationals of other countries settling in the United States has another, more political motive. “Too soft” on migration is just another way to say “too welcoming.”

But a fear of political blowback from xenophobic voters is not an excuse to not be welcoming to both refugees and migrants. To be sure, many Americans view refugees and migrants as one and the same, but the United States should not take advantage of that fact to deny people fleeing violence from access to the wealthiest country on earth. Nativist voters are not an excuse for nativist policy. Instead of greenlighting this xenophobia by using refugees as pawns in a political game, the United States should actually welcome and provide for refugee justice. For refugees, that begins with the depoliticization of refugee resettlement. Instead of shifting the definitions of refugee and migrant to suit political needs or dodge political blowback, the United States should adjust refugee caps based on the number of refugees worldwide.

But even that important shift toward a depoliticized, humanitarian definition of “refugee” is not enough to make the refugee resettlement process humanitarian. The task requires a complete overhaul of refugee resettlement itself. As the Refugee Act of 1980 is written, in Section B.i., “employable refugees should be placed on jobs as soon as possible after their arrival in the United States.” B.ii. further notes that social services should be “focused on employment-related-services.” In other words, the goal of refugee resettlement as designed right now – even the provision of social services to refugees fleeing war – is to provide labor for the United States. Refugees are treated by the Refugee Act as potentially exploitable workers. Viewed through that lens, it is no coincidence that the labor supply that refugee resettlement creates from refugees is usually Black and brown and from the Global South. The refugee resettlement program does exactly what the Bracero Program did in the mid-century: recruit brown workers for physically taxing jobs.

And all too often, physical labor that many white Americans are unwilling to do is exactly the type of jobs that refugees toil in. Nama, a Syrian resettled in Houston, TX., labors for a dollar above minimum wage and still barely manages to scrape by in paying rent. Ahmed, a Congolese refugee I met in Clarkston, GA., was a doctor in Congo but has become a warehouse worker in the United States. Many Cambodian refugees during the 80s and 90s in New York City, as detailed by Eric Tang in his book Unsettled: Cambodian Refugees in the New York City Hyperghetto, did contracted garment labor at home so the company that employs them can avoid overhead costs (117). Refugees are promised better lives and a chance at their own American Dreams, then rudely awoken from those Dreams by bosses overseeing regimes of paltry wages and few benefits at warehouses and factories and their own homes.

Even as refugees toil in jobs to be economically “self-sufficient” and meet the requirements mandated by resettlement to produce labor, many are forced to downward assimilate into marginalization by that same process. For many refugees, downward assimilation is characterized by entrapment in deep impoverished conditions and constant physical movement within the United States. “The cycle of uprooting, displacement, and captivity that defines the refugee experience persists long after resettlement,” Eric Tang noted in his work, a description that holds true today (5). Refugees move from apartment to apartment, flat to flat, city to city, accompanied by nightmares and Food Stamps. Cambodian refugees were resettled into the Bronx, even as the Bronx’s social services were gutted and defunded as a consequence of the insurrections of the 1960s by the state, and became part of the entrenched ghetto that cages generation after generation. These cages were imposed after resettlement because the resettlement process, as written in law, does little to aid refugees after a few short months in the resettlement process. Refugees are fast-tracked to assimilation – as exploitable labor, commonly provided only enough ESL education to supply their labor, funneled into welfare systems that societal structures encourage them to rely on in perpetuity. That system is enforced by the need to pay back travel loans provided to arrive in the United States for resettlement within six months of arrival. All the while, perpetual poverty is conceptualized as temporary – even as it becomes permanent by virtue of the structures of oppression into which refugees assimilate in American communities.

There are two ways to break that cycle. The first is to greatly expand the funding available in the refugee resettlement process to allow for integration, including long-term provision of mental health services and healthcare, as well as affordable housing. That requires reform of the process to dispose of its intense focus on transforming traumatized people into exploitable workers. Reform would effectively aid people fleeing war and repression in actually finding refuge in U.S. society on their own terms, not on the terms mandated by the state.

The second method is to confront the fundamental issue that there is a “downward” to assimilate into, a task that requires decolonizing the hyperghetto by addressing the root anti-Black causes of violence, incarceration, and other manifestations of systemic racism that undergird the persistence of the hyperghetto in American cities. Social housing, reparations, massively more funded education through redistribution of funds currently allocated to city police, and forgiveness for crimes committed by the incarcerated are all necessary steps to decolonize the hyperghetto. Most of these are viewed as pies in the sky precisely because the ruling political class has been fighting a class war against Black people for a generation of one-way battles, from the War on Drugs to the War on Crime, to keep Black Americans as an exploitable and often enslaved caste. But a limited political imagination based on anti-Black norms is not enough to cope with the deep, structural racisms that produced the hyperghetto. Nothing less than an abolitionist framework can deconstruct the hyperghetto and tackle the root causes of structural inequality many refugees experience by virtue of their proximity to the subjects of the American caste system: Black Americans.

Both of these avenues to reform refugee resettlement should be pursued. The first is a medium-term goal; the second, a long-term one. Both are necessary steps to actually reform refugee resettlement to commit to its humanitarian promise. To be sure, many refugees successfully integrate on American terms and become small business owners, organizers, and politicians. But we cannot let individuals who “make it,” in the sense that they fit the criteria by which Americans tend to evaluate success, be tokenized to defend an indefensible system. Reform will benefit all refugees, including both past and future generations of people who find themselves in America after fleeing their own homes. Both expanding the refugee resettlement program and abolition are contingent on depoliticizing refugee resettlement from the ever-fluctuating narrow interests of whoever happens to sit in the Oval Office at any given time. When President Biden raises the refugee cap after pressure from progressives, it is a necessary but insufficient corrective. Reform should be grander and more ambitious – namely, a commitment to make refugee resettlement policy as moral as its promise.

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