This is a blog post of mine published on the Sussex University website in conjunction with a recent conference on refugee resettlement.
The U.S. refugee resettlement system is the largest in the world. Since 1975, over 3 million refugees have been resettled in the United States. It has garnered bipartisan endorsement in Congress as well as local support, particularly by faith communities. It is often said that the U.S. refugee resettlement program reflects the United States’ highest values and aspirations to compassion, generosity and leadership. But let’s not be too Pollyannaish: tensions between newly arrived refugees and local communities have always existed. Learning a new language and culture and becoming fully integrated take time and can create friction between the new arrivals and established residents in the community. In the past few years, a number of communities have expressed concern about the local impact of resettlement, and there have been statewide legislative and executive efforts to restrict and deter refugee resettlement. And let’s not forget the anti-refugee sentiments expressed by the current Republican presidential nominee and his supporters.
But I do not want to dwell on the raising anti-refugee and anti-immigrant sentiments. Rather, I want to focus on refugee integration. Most scholars and policy makers define integration as the process by which refugees become accepted into society, both as individuals and as groups, emphasizing the notion that the responsibility for integration rests not with one particular group, but rather with many actors—the government, local communities, and the refugees themselves. When assessing integration, researchers analyze a wide range of measurable outcomes: attainment of early economic self-sufficiency, income levels, participation in public benefits programs, and English language proficiency, to name a few. Studies also look at how the mainstream society welcomes refugee newcomers, at the social connections, social bridges, and social links between the host society and refugee communities.
What seems to be missing in these analyses is the emphasis on integration between and among different newcomer groups. The 2012 GAO (Government Accountability Office) report on the U.S. resettlement system– that includes analysis of several studies on integration of refugees– talks about integration solely in terms of relationships between established residents and newcomers, without really discussing the diversity of both populations and the need for refugees to integrate into a multi-racial, multi-ethnic, and multi-religious society.
Integration into a multicultural environment is particularly important since refugees arriving in the United States often find the country more diverse than the lands they left behind. The American society is composed of different waves of immigrants, some more empathetic than others to new refugee arrivals. But the refugee populations resettled in the U.S. are also very diverse. Between 2009 and 2014, the U.S. resettled 402,000 refugees from 106 countries. Among the most numerous groups were refugees from Iraq (98,000), Burma (97,000), Bhutan (73,000), followed by Somalia (34,000), and the Democratic Republic of Congo (14,000). A great deal of intra-group diversity is also present. For example, the people of Burma consist of eight main ethnic groups that can be further divided into more than 130 distinctive subgroups and this multiplicity of backgrounds is reflected among the arrivals from Burma as the United States accepted the Chin and Kachin as well as Karen refugees. Many advocates are also urging the US to increase the number of Rohingya refugees. Similarly, among the Iraqi refugees who have been coming in considerable numbers to the country since the Gulf War there are Iraqi and Kurdish Muslims as well as Chaldean Christians. And a last example: The Somalis Bantus are ethnically, physically, and culturally distinct from the Cushitic majority. As such, they have long been considered second-class citizens in Somali society – exploited as laborers, and excluded from education, land ownership, political opportunities and representation–and yet in the United States they often live side-by-side with their Cushitic compatriots.
Because refugee status is determined on an individual basis, it is not totally outside the realm of possibility that families or individuals that have been mortal enemies during the armed crisis that made them flee their homeland and seek refuge in the U.S. are now neighbors. I am reminded of my time in the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) where two of my grantees brought the war from the Balkans to Boise, Idaho. The animosity between the groups that were of the same ethnicity and lived in the same village but supported different sides in the war continued in Idaho. Sometimes the antagonisms took on humorous forms and expressed themselves in fierce folk song competitions, but at other times the continued bickering and bullying threatened the neighborhood’s social cohesion. I worked hard to make both groups set aside their politics and concentrate on the problems that faced them and other refugees and immigrants living in the community: quality of education for their children, domestic violence, and petty crime that was rampant in the neighborhood. I could plead but I had no resources to support different groups of refugees and immigrants to get together to solve common problems.
According to the stipulations enshrined in the Refugee act of 1980, ORR’s budget for refugees has always been split between 85% of the federal monies going to employment-related services (after all, early economic self-sufficiency is the main goal of the U.S. resettlement program) and 15% to social services. There is also a smaller discretionary fund pot. However, without exception, ORR directors have used their discretionary funds mainly to support activities of discrete groups of refugees. I used to call it “funding by ethnicity.” When the first cohort of Iraqis came, the Office of Refugee Resettlement funded a three-day conference for the community. It was a wonderful event! We even funded childcare so Iraqi women with childcare responsibilities could participate. The same type of conference was organized for other groups: the Somalis, the Bosnians, and the Sudanese. When I questioned the rationale for supporting the same type of activities for diverse groups of people who often had very different needs, the powers that be invoked equity. Don’t get me wrong, I am all for equity, but tailoring funding and activities to the special needs of different groups is also very important, isn’t it?
My main criticism, however, related to the propensity of the federal government to focus on one ethnic community at a time. Newcomers interact with established residents—U.S.-born folk and refugees and immigrants who came before them—in many different social arenas. Community boundaries are created through exchanges between these groups in schools, workplaces, government offices, law enforcement, and health care facilities. It is this social space that fosters integration and change, on one hand, or isolation and conflict on the other. Successful integration often requires both newcomers and establishes residents to expand their notions of community.
Even among long-standing residents, establishing a sense of community is often a challenge. “Community” refers both to where people live and how they feel and act. In one sense, it evokes a feeling of collectivity that is linked to a specific geographic area or physical space such as a city, a town, a school, a place of worship, or a city block. In another sense, it transcends geographic limitations to unite a group of people sharing common behavioral patterns, values, and social ties related to traits such as ethnicity, religion, and nationality. It often takes time to feel comfortable when moving to a new city or town, entering a new school or changing jobs. This challenge is heightened for both newcomers and established community members when the newcomer’s cultural and linguistic background is different from that of the majority.
Many localities create action plans to promote positive social interaction between newcomers and established residents and ensure that all residents receive quality service. These plans often emerge from the grassroots level as concerned residents, businesses, and public officials join forces to respond to rapid population change. In other instances, local governments take it upon themselves to create committees or task forces dedicated to incorporating all residents into community life. One approach is bottom up; the other is top down. The two often work in unison and can both be effective in solving challenges pose by rapid new settlement of foreign-born populations.