Approaches to Refugee Resettlement Discourse
Recent discourse surrounding refugee resettlement often falls into one of three broad currents. The first current focuses on reforming federal policy concerning immigrants and asylum seekers as well as the public and private agencies that manage their resettlement. The second current centers around academic framing of refugee resettlement, synthesizing sociological research to analyze trends. The third and final current centers around activism and is directed toward individuals at the local level seeking practical strategies to aid and improve refugee resettlement in their communities.
Thinking of refugee discourse in terms of goals helped us organize the sources we consulted for the Epilogues Project. We chose to differentiate between strands of refugee discourse by what each author wants to accomplish. This literature review selects an article from each of these respective currents and puts them in conversation by comparing the answers each provides to the following two questions:
1) What problem with the current system of refugee resettlement or problem faced by refugees has the author chosen to identify?
2) What solution does the author propose for the problem they identify?
Approach One: Policy Proposal
In “Unfulfilled Promises, Future Possibilities: The Refugee Resettlement System in the United States,” Anastasia Brown and Todd Scribner present an historical overview of federal policy concerning refugees leading up to the Refugee Act of 1980 and the subsequent decline in funding for resettlement. The authors identify the erosion of provisions for refugees after the Refugee Act of 1980 as the source of strain between the public and private agencies in the immigration system.
The historical overview surveys the progression of United States refugee policy from World War II to the Refugee Act. The proliferation in “displaced persons following the end of World War II” led the United States to become “proactive” in resettlement, as well as later crises in “Cuba, Southeast Asia, and Eastern Europe” (Brown and Scribner 102). It was not until the Refugee Act of 1980 that the U.S. government established a standardized system for admittance or explicit delineation of roles for resettlement agencies. Brown and Scribner cite statistics from federal bodies as well as non-governmental organizations that indicate the decrease of funding for refugees since the establishment of the Refugee Act has put strain on resettlement agencies, which must accommodate each year’s flow of immigrants and asylum seekers with insufficient information and resources.
The first recommendation that Brown and Scribner propose is an overall increase in funding, calling the federal government to reclaim the role of leadership in the resettlement process, a responsibility “specified in the Refugee Act” (122).
Next, the authors recommend federal agencies establish systems to better track the secondary migration of refugees to other communities in the country in order to continue providing them with resources such as interest-free loans through the refugee travel loan program.
Finally, the authors propose improved methods of communication between parties coordinating international and domestic resettlement, including greater information sharing between government agencies, providing medical and mental health information to resettlement agencies, as well as measures to “provide a greater degree of predictability to the resettlement process,” such as providing budgetary information that would allow agencies on the local level to prepare for and adapt to meet the needs of the incoming refugee population (115).
Brown and Scribner’s piece provides the best example of the first category of refugee resettlement discourse, presenting three major proposals – more federal funding, better tracking of secondary migrations, and improved communication and coordination – which are all directed at the level of federal policy. Brown and Scribner identify the erosion of federal support for domestic resettlement and overall “lack of adequate support” as the primary cause of the “substantial strain” felt by both “refugee receiving communities and on resettlement agencies” (Brown and Scribner 102).
Approach Two: Academic Research
In their 2012 article, “Linguistic Isolation, Social Capital, and Immigrant Belonging,” Stephanie J. Nawyn, Linda Gjokaj, DeBrenna LaFa Agbényiga, and Breanne Grace argue that resettled refugees without English proficiency face linguistic isolation in the United States, depriving them of access to resources and acceptance within their communities. The authors argue that a refugee’s lack of social capital – defined as “social networks that have the potential to provide either material or nonmaterial resources” – exacerbates this linguistic isolation, cutting them off from resources which refugees with more social ties have greater opportunity to access (Nawyn et al 257).
The authors interviewed 36 Burundian and Burmese refugees who had recently resettled in Grand Rapids and Lansing, Michigan, asking them about the barriers to integration and access to basic services. The participants were more concerned about “their lack of access to basic information” than how their lack of English skills restricted their economic opportunities (265). The authors found that Burmese participants, through weak ties gained through communities such as church congregations, could connect with more bilingual conationals for assistance accessing resources than the Burundian participants, who exhibited more linguistic isolation.
Nawyn et al. conclude that more information must be made available on a local level for immigrants to access important resources and on a community level for opportunities to be provided for refugees to create social ties. Additionally, they argue for two changes in how social capital is addressed in sociological theory and research: first, that there must be a clear definition of the concept, and second, that social capital theory must be liberated from the myopic lens of rational choice theory and neoliberal models that ignore non-economic implications of social capital like linguistic isolation.
The research put forth by Nawyn et al. in “Linguistic Isolation, Social Capital, and Immigrant Belonging” leads the authors to suggest proposals applying largely to the second current of refugee discourse, which privileges improvements to theoretical framing and academic understanding of issues surrounding refugees.
They counter a dominant critical position concerning immigrant social citizenship which “assumes that if immigrants have the right to access resources from the state, they have social citizenship in that state,” first by arguing for a clear definition of social capital within the sociological field that acknowledges the importance of language skills for navigating provided resources and second for an expansion of the definition of social capital beyond the restrictive neoliberal market model (Nawyn et al. 276). Their research and proposals may provide a foundation for practical reform, but fellow academics compose their primary audience.
Approach Three: Local Activism
Todd Scribner analyzes the effects of the Trump administration on the resettlement process in the United States in his 2017 article “You are Not Welcome Here Anymore: Restoring Support for Refugee Resettlement in the Age of Trump.” While this article includes an overview of U.S. policy similar to his 2014 article with Anastasia Brown, Scribner here turns his focus from policy to cultural narratives, explicating “the restrictionist logic that informs the Trump administration’s worldview” while examining how historian Bernard Lewis and political theorist Samuel Huntington’s paradigm of the Clash of Civilizations establishes a lens descriptive of the culture-privileging approach to international affairs that the President and his advisors and supporters espouse (Scribner 265).
Formulated by Bernard Lewis and popularized by Samuel Huntington, the Clash of Civilizations (CoC) describes the international situation after the Soviet Union’s fall in which culture has overtaken ideology as the foundation of international conflict. Before then, the United States accepted refugees from the Soviet Union and other communist governments in part to “demonstrate a point,” that refugees’ desire to escape to America from left-wing governments “would reveal the undesirable character of communist countries and the superiority of the West” (269). As geopolitical relations shifted, this strategy’s usefulness waned.
As the East versus West paradigm fell away, it seemed, as argued by Francis Fukuyama in his “end of history” theory that liberal democracy had established itself as the final form of government. Huntington disagreed, arguing that while liberal democracy had emerged triumphant from the ideological conflict against socialism and communism, fundamental cultural divisions between “discrete civilizations,” including Western and Islamic cultures, remain as opposed as ever (270). Adherents to the CoC paradigm see instances of Islamic-inspired terrorism as manifestations of anti-Westernism that illustrates the incompatibility of Western and Islamic civilizations.
While Trump has not invoked the CoC directly, Scribner argues that his administration’s efforts to curb immigration stem from a similar cultural logic that views migrants from Islamic countries as incompatible with the culture of the United States, that is, that of white Christian America. “As a part of this worldview,” Scribner claims, “not only do Muslims pose an external national security threat vis-à-vis terrorism,” they also present “an internal one insofar as they threaten the cultural and political foundations that have given the United States its distinctive character” (276).
An overview follows of the Trump administration’s attempts to restrict immigration, particularly from countries with Muslim populations. Most significant is the 2015 travel ban on all Muslims entering the United States in response to the San Bernardino terrorist attack, which directly illustrated the perspective of Islamic terrorism as “an existential threat” in line with the CoC paradigm (265). Scribner also includes statistics from U.S. voters, indicating that many Americans share the Trump administration’s perception of immigration as a threat to the country.
Scribner concludes by presenting three broad recommendations to restore support for refugee resettlement. First, he calls for “effective advocacy” against federal restrictionist policies and calling for a “generous refugee admissions program” (278). Second, he argues for an equal amount of attention to “grassroots organizing and educational efforts in local communities,” asking proponents, including “religious institutions, immigration advocates, nonprofits, and other organizations,” to find where they can promote integration locally (278). Finally, he calls for advocates to accept the overall paradigm underlying the Clash of Civilizations – that culture plays “a preeminent role in the promotion and establishment of policy” (278). To combat restrictive measures like the Trump administration’s policies, activists must understand what premises convinced their supporters in the first place.
Scribner’s article prominently features the third current of refugee resettlement discourse, informing activists about the wave of restrictionist policies and sentiments they seek to resist. While he promotes “grassroots organizing and educational efforts in local communities” and “integration on the local level,” Scribner pivots to emphasize the importance of refugee advocates understanding the present importance of culture as perhaps more immediately important (Scribner 278). Scribner does not dismiss grassroots advocacy, but he acknowledges that rethinking “fundamental narratives that guide our… self-understanding as a nation,” must become “the priority in the public engagement of civic associations, faith communities, and other organizations interested in the public square” (279). Refugee advocacy in this new era requires activists to understand the cultural logic driving the anxieties behind the national programs they oppose.
Culture as Basis for Discourse
Scribner’s approach in his 2017 article aligns with Nawyn et al.’s focus on culture, but their proposals diverge as a result of their different audiences. Nawyn et al., operating within an academic paradigm as they seek to provide data and influence future studies, contribute more to analysis than activism. While both articles appear in academic journals, Scribner’s addresses his proposals to advocates of refugee resettlement on the individual and organizational level who are already engaged in education and resettlement efforts.
Although Nawyn et al. and Scribner’s articles are from different currents of discourse, both present proposals intended to change how their respective audiences conceive of an issue related to resettlement – social capital’s effect on linguistic isolation for Nawyn et al. and the Trump administration’s CoC-adjacent restrictions on resettlement for Scribner. For the authors of both articles, one’s understanding is a critical step in addressing the problems they describe.
Federal vs Local Engagement
Consistent with the policy-focused current of resettlement discourse, Brown and Scribner in their 2014 piece identify opportunities for reform within federal agencies and programs. Their attention to the mechanisms of resettlement in the U.S. establishes this article as something of an outlier in the conversation, with the other two articles focusing on the people navigating the system rather than the system itself. While Nawyn et al. call for more funding for refugee resettlement on a local level, consistent with Brown and Scribner’s request for more federal funding, Nawyn et al. focus on access rather than funding as the primary barrier to refugees receiving services.
Brown and Scribner’s proposal to increase federal assistance to private resettlement agencies and public services indicates that the planning and funding keeping the services operational currently is inadequate. For Nawyn et al., a campaign to make basic resources accessible for refugees without English language skills would be a significant step in addressing the problem of linguistic isolation.
Brown and Scribner’s impersonal approach in calling for more federal funding, improved planning, and better communication and coordination assumes the administration operating the executive branch as well as present members of Congress are amenable to the reforms. Scribner’s 2017 article illustrates how an administration seeking to curb immigration can debilitate the resettlement system. His call for a reevaluation of approaches to advocacy in the 2017 article read like an amendment to the more impersonal, policy-focused approach he took in his 2014 article with Brown.
Both of the articles featuring Scribner present more practical reforms than Nawyn et al.’s piece, but in the 2014 article, Brown and Scribner assume receptive conditions that Scribner in 2017 acknowledges one can no longer assume. As a result, Scribner in 2017 proposes change on a local, even individual level, whereas Brown and Scribner present far more ambitious proposals to the overall structure of U.S. resettlement in 2014.
As the diverse proposals of each featured article demonstrate, while people who write about refugee resettlement in the United States can agree that the system and the people who must navigate it face a host of problems, each writer’s perspective determines which of those problems they identify as requiring immediate attention and reform. Our project also identifies a problem and proposes a response, although our approach may not fit into one of the three currents of discourse that the three selected articles exemplify.
In her proposal for our project, Annelise Claire claims that writers covering refugee narratives “tend to stress the chaos and destruction of war and the trauma of flight” while the “epilogue” of “resettling, rebuilding, picking up lives where they were left off” is too often left unnarrated (Claire “Refugee Narratives: The Epilogue”). The Epilogues Project is one response to the problem of unnarrated resettlement stories.
While our research into policy, academic framings, and activism have informed our approach – and each of these facets have influenced our selected interview questions – our primary focus is working with our participants to present their stories in their words on their terms rather than reducing their experiences to evidence for a claim or argument. Through the project we will build a model for narrating resettlement, emphasizing that the events of a refugee’s experience worth telling do not end with their first day in a new home country.
Brown, Anastasia, and Todd Scribner. “Unfulfilled Promises, Future Possibilities: The Refugee Resettlement System in the United States.” Journal on Migration and Human Security, vol. 2, no. 2, June 2014, pp. 101–20. SAGE Journals, doi:10.1177/233150241400200203.
Claire, Annelise. “Refugee Narratives: The Epilogue.” digitaldesign.annelise claire.com, https://digitaldesign.anneliseclaire.com/project-proposal/refugee-narratives-the-epilogue/. Accessed 24 March 2020.
Nawyn, Stephanie J., et al. “Linguistic Isolation, Social Capital, and Immigrant Belonging:” Journal of Contemporary Ethnography, vol. 41, no. 3, Jan. 2012. pp. 255-82. journals.sagepub.com, doi:10.1177/0891241611433623.
Scribner, Todd. “You Are Not Welcome Here Anymore: Restoring Support for Refugee Resettlement in the Age of Trump.” Journal on Migration and Human Security, vol. 5, no. 2, June 2017, pp. 263–84. SAGE Journals, doi:10.1177/233150241700500203.
Pledged – A. C., S. B., G. P.