Author Archives: Elzbieta M. Gozdziak

Cruel and unusual punishment: A personal reflection on the DACA decision

Yesterday, 800,000 dreams were shattered as the Republican administration rescinded the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. This is a cruel and unusual punishment for young people who have not committed any crimes, often don’t know any other country but the United States, and want to stay here to contribute to our society and economy.

As I watched the news unfold, I was reminded of the time when I too was an undocumented migrant, a visa overstayer who sought refuge in the United States because the political situation in my native Poland became untenable as martial law was declared, Solidarity activists put in internment camps, academic freedoms curtailed, and college professors required to sign an oath of loyalty to the communist regime.

In the early 1980s, the Regan administration provided Poles with a port in this political storm by granting us—even those who were undocumented–extended voluntary departure (EVD). Poles were not the only recipients of EVD. The United States granted extended voluntary departure to Ugandans who were here during Idi Amin’s bloody last days and the Iranian students in colleges across the country when the Ayatollah came to power. Over the years, the same safe haven was provided to other nationalities, too – Cubans, Czechs, Chileans, Ethiopians, Nicaraguans, and Afghans. These past actions fly in the face of the current administration’s assertion that DACA is unconstitutional. Nobody was accusing President Regan or Bush of passing unconstitutional protection to those who needed it badly.

The EVD, like DACA, was not an amnesty. In fact, many of the Polish recipients of EVD did not qualify for the amnesty that arrived in the form of the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) of 1986. We were not here long enough to meet the eligibility criteria.

The EVD was a welcomed but a temporary measure. Just like DACA recipients, we had to reapply for the status when the provision was extended. I remember that it was costly and required the assistance of an immigration lawyer. I also had to use the assistance of an immigration lawyer every time I wanted to travel abroad for work. He skillfully prepared numerous advance parole applications so I could do research on Hungarian refugees fleeing Ceausescu’s Romania or Germans leaving the DDR for the West or simply give papers or represent the Refugee Policy Group (RPG) at international conferences and safely return to my adopted homeland.

Indeed, the work permit was the major benefit of the EVD. We all wanted to work, no matter what. Despite arriving in the U.S. with a Ph.D., I started like many other immigrants, working my way up from a job selling baby clothes in a department store to a research associate, civil servant in the U.S. federal government, and finally research professor at Georgetown University.

I count my many blessings! I had the support of my U.S.-born cousin and her husband who housed and fed me until I became financially independent. I had a boss, Susan Martin, who knew more about immigration law than my lawyer. Susan and the Refugee Policy Group sponsored me for my green card using the now extinct sixth category preference for distinguished artists and highly skilled professionals. I got my green card using the same immigration provision Mikhail Baryshnikov utilized. Sadly, the DACAmented do not have the same avenue available to them.

My undocumented life was not easy, but it was greatly aided by the fact that I was a young white woman. White privilege coupled with a lot less xenophobia than today, made my American dream a reality.

I am writing this blog this morning not to boast about my accomplishments, but to encourage young DREAMERS to persist and persevere against all odds. I pledge to support undocumented students on the Georgetown campus and beyond. I will continue to attend rallies and donate to legal organizations representing DREAMERS. As a DC resident, I do not have a representative in Congress who can cast a vote when a bipartisan effort to protect DACA recipients is launched, but I will urge my friends and colleagues in all states in the U.S. to exert pressure on their representatives. I urge all of you to do the same! The DREAMERS deserve to stay. Period.


Leave a comment

Filed under DACA

Waiting for another executive order

In the first week since his inauguration, Donald Trump has signed several executive orders. According to various reports, the next executive order suspending the U.S. Refugee Resettlement program for four months will be signed as early as this afternoon. Signing this order  on January 27—the Holocaust Remembrance Day—is indeed cruelly ironic.  In 1939, the United States turned away the St. Louis, a ship carrying more than 900 passengers—mainly Jewish refugees fleeing the terror of Nazi Germany—after it was first turned away from Havana, Cuba. Are we about to turn away thousands of refugees fleeing war-torn Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan?

Mr. Trump–it’s hard to call him Mr. President (#notmypresident)–does not seem to understand the ramifications of the executive order he is about to sign. Coupled with an additional ban on issuing visas to nationals from Syria, Iraq, Iran, Somalia, Libya, Sudan, and Yemen, these orders will undermine America’s position as one of the world’s leading refugee resettlement countries. They will also affect thousands of Iraqi interpreters and soldiers that served alongside U.S. troops who have applied for visas to come to the United States. As of June 2016, 800 applications for the Special Immigrant Visa were submitted by Iraqi interpreters and their families.

I wonder if Mr. Trump has put any thought into what the suspension of the resettlement program will do to the resettlement regime. The refugee resettlement program was one of the biggest casualties of 9/11. Within days, the refugee resettlement program that had brought some 2.5 million refugees to the United States since 1975 was shut down. Three years later, the program was still running at only about two-thirds of its previous capacity and it took several years to bring it back to the 70,000 admission levels.The Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) kept the program going and continued to fund their partners because they understood that the resettlement system had to be operational to serve refugees once they were allowed to come to this country again. Will ORR be able to do the same this time? The agency is stretched to maximum serving refugees, unaccompanied children and youth, torture survivors, and victims of human trafficking. We have to keep it going!

I know how important the work of ORR is. I worked there during the Clinton administration. I know how much refugees appreciate the assistance programs ORR funds and how much refugee community members and leaders value the partnership with the agency. I also know how important it is to maintain the premiere refugee resettlement system. I am a refugee. I fled my native Poland in 1984, shortly after martial law ended, but persecution of scholars and college professors continued. I know that this division of society into “Them” and “Us” is dangerous. It breeds hatred and misery. Let’s remember that on the Day of Remembrance.

Leave a comment

Filed under Refugees, Trump

Bicske refugee camp to close at the end of December

Just a quick trip to the refugee camp in Bicske, a small town outside Budapest, before the camp closes at the end of December.  Bicske, which has been operating as a refugee facility for over two decades, is being shut down as part of a government-mandated wave of camp closures.

It is difficult to say what will happen to the refugees who live there—on the day of my visit there were 75 individuals in the camp, hailing from Cuba, Nigeria, Cameroon, Iraq, Pakistan, and Afghanistan—or for that matter to the camp director and the social workers taking care of the camp residents. Human rights advocates and some NGOs believe that the Fidesz government’s decision to close the camp is not simply a matter of allocation of resources but part of a broader political strategy to push refugees out of Hungary.

Bicske, which could house as many as 460 refugees is operating well below capacity. The number of asylum applicants in the country has decreased dramatically over the past months. According to data from the Hungarian Helsinki Committee, in October 2016, 1198 refugees registered for asylum in Hungary compared with 5812 in April 2016. As of October 2016, there were 529 asylum-seekers staying in Hungarian refugee reception facilities: 318 at open reception centers such as Bicske and 211 in detention centers.

The Budapest Beacon reported that the refugees will be relocated to a camp in Kiskunhalas in southern Hungary, some two and a half hours by train from Budapest.

The Bicske camp’s location has offered its residents opportunities to access a variety of educational and recreational activities that help them adjust to life in Hungary. Some refugees commute to Budapest to attend classes at the Central European University as well as language courses provided by NGOs. Bicske residents often attend events and meet with Hungarian mentors from groups such as Artemisszió multicultural foundation and MigSzol. Christian refugees are bused to an American church each Sunday morning. Moving the residents to Kiskunhalas will deprive them of these opportunities.

The Hungarian government offers very few resources to refugees — both to those in reception facilities awaiting decisions on their cases and those who have received asylum in Hungary. Access to the civil society organizations helping refugees prepare for their new lives is key.

Leave a comment

Filed under Hungary, refugee camps, refugee crisis, Refugees

We too have got pens and phones….


The right-wing (they claim to be non-partisan sic!) research organization known as Center for Immigration Studies (CIS) has reacted to the now famous quote by President Obama–“I’ve got a pen, and I’ve got a phone, and I can use that pen to sign executive orders and take executive action”–with a long backgrounder outlining 79 immigration actions the next president should take. The recommendations suggest, among other things, denying asylum to any forced migrants (my terminology; CIS calls them aliens) who could have sought asylum in countries through which they traveled en route to the United States; limiting Temporary Protective Status to one year; and prosecuting relatives of unaccompanied minors who paid smugglers to get their children to the United States to reunite with families.  These are just a few examples of issues that are part of my own research agenda.You can read the full list of the proposed immigration actions here

At this point it is difficult to say which of these points the President-Elect will act on immediately. As the election results were coming in, I was thinking about DACA. It is a low-hanging fruit, and the new president will undoubtedly reach for it. As a  professor at a university that educates DACA recipients,  immigrant students, and foreign students (many of the latter ones are Muslim), I also worry about their educational prospects, physical safety, and emotional well-being.

As a migration scholar and a migrant myself, I am worried that the new president will listen only to those who want to come down on the immigrant communities like a ton of bricks and destroy any progress in integrating diverse groups of refugees and immigrants into the fabric of the American society. When I sought refuge in the United States some thirty years ago from a Communist Poland, I came to this country because I wanted to be part of a multiracial, multicultural, and multi-religious society.

I still do! But I also see that the diversity of America is under a serious threat. So what are we do do? Like President Obama, we’ve also got pens and phones and can start writing and calling to make sure that we take back Congress in two years–the way Republicans took it in 1994 and 2010–to preserve the American values and fight racism, misogyny, and injustice.

As Thomas Lacroix, a French migration scholar, wrote yesterday, we need to fight the hysteria about migrants and migration with our knowledge about migratory processes and migrant communities. Thomas call us to action: to visit schools, community centers,  and publish in local newspapers instead of esoteric migration journals, appear on radio talk shows instead of conference panels.  Each reader, each listener, each viewer we can convince that migration is not a plague will bring about a paradigm shift and hopefully change people’s views about us, the migrants.

So let’s reach for our pens and phones to write, to make arrangements to visit schools and preschools, to show solidarity with the Others because they are US!


Leave a comment

Filed under attitudes towards immigrants, immigrant integration, Refugees

Become a border hunter…


The Hungarian police is recruiting 3,000 “border-hunters” to join some 10,000 police and soldiers patrolling a razor-wire fence built to stop refugees crossing the border from Serbia. The recruitment posts are scattered all over Budapest, including the Keleti Railway Station that became a de facto refugee camp for tens of thousands of people fleeing violence in the Middle East and Afghanistan in the summer of 2015.

Ten thousand police and three thousand “border-hunters” to deal with fewer than 200 refugees that are reaching Hungary’s southern border with Serbia every day. As we travel from Keleti to the refugee camp in Bicske, I ask my research assistant to find out more about the “border-hunters.”peterThey have to have a high school diploma and will receive a six months training that will prepare them for the job. They  will apparently  be earning approximately 200,000 HUF (or $709) a month, and there will be other perks: housing and clothing allowance, and discount on travel and cell phones. The recruiter cannot–or does not want–to answer how many people he managed to recruit today.

During a recruiting fair in early October, a pack of teenagers ogled a display of machine guns, batons, and riot gear. A glossy flier included a picture of patrols in 4x4s, super-cool equipment to detect body heat, night-vision goggles and migrant-sniffing dogs.

Because that’s how Hungary’s new “border-hunters” roll.

The country that once sat behind the Iron Curtain is offering a glimpse into a world where the build-a-wall mentality to keep refugees out rules the land.

Leave a comment

Filed under attitudes towards immigrants, Hungary, refugee crisis, Refugees

Brussels or Budapest, that was the question…


Foto by Elzbieta M. Gozdziak

Caption Translation: Do not take chances, vote “No”

In October 2 referendum Hungarians were asked a simple question: “Do you want the European Union to prescribe the mandatory settlement of non-Hungarian citizens in Hungary without the consent of the National Assembly?” Voter turnout was only 39 percent, far short of the 50 percent participation required to make the referendum valid under Hungarian law. Never one to let facts get in the way of politics, the Prime Minister, Victor Orbán, whose Eurosceptic Fidesz party has more support than all opposition parties combined, said in a televised speech: “The European Union’s proposal is to let the migrants in and distribute them in mandatory fashion among the member states and for Brussels to decide about this distribution. Hungarians today considered this proposal and they rejected it. Hungarians decided that only we Hungarians can decide with whom we want to live. The question was ‘Brussels or Budapest’ and we decided this issue is exclusively the competence of Budapest.” Orbán, the Victorious, as he is called by the opposition, decided that the 3.3 million Hungarians who voted “No” in the referendum speak for the whole country of 10 million Hungarians. After his speech, there were fireworks over the Danube River in the colors of the Hungarian flag. The EU asked Hungary to find homes for 1,294 refugees who fled war. But rather than accept it, the Hungarian Government spent 16 million euro on a xenophobic anti-immigrant campaign. This is over 12,000 euro per refugee! This amount would have gone a long way towards providing refugees with livelihoods in a country where people live on about 257,000 HUF or $857 a month. In order to prevent the European Union from sending refugees to Hungary, Mr. Orban has proposed a constitutional amendment to reflect “the will of the people.” It was presented to the Parliament on October 10, and, if approved, it would come into effect on November 8. I wonder if any of the other Visegrád Four countries—Poland, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia–could seek to emulate Hungary and concoct a moot referendum of their own. Anti-immigrant sentiments and xenophobic rhetoric are on the rise in Poland where Mr. Orbán’s friend, Lech Kaczyński, the Chairman of the Law and Justice ruling party, spews the same hatred of Muslim refugees. Sadly, EU institutions, including the European Commission and Council, have remained virtually silent on the Hungarian government’s hate campaign and the referendum.

Leave a comment

Filed under attitudes towards immigrants, Hungary, refugee crisis, Refugees

Building Contact between Immigrants and Host Communities is Vital to Integration, guest post by Jonas Bergmann

Extensive evidence shows that fostering contact between natives and immigrants decreases intergroup prejudices, anxieties, and perceived threats, which can pave the way for successful integration, social cohesion, and development.

The growing scale of human mobility worldwide has rendered immigration a salient topic with a prominent place in public discourse. European citizens, for instance, currently perceive it as the most critical issue facing the EU overall.[i] Prejudices and anxieties surrounding immigrants have reached a startling scale that fuels exclusion, discrimination, violence and a lack of support for integration policies. The ensuing risks to social cohesion and human development of both immigrants and natives should be a critical concern for policy makers.

New evidence-based action is required to address these anti-immigrant prejudices and sentiments. Policy makers can learn from recent advances in social psychology: Extensive empirical research shows that fostering contact between natives and immigrants decreases prejudices, anxieties, and perceived threats, while increasing empathy and mutual understanding. Building contact can ultimately facilitate more positive group relationships and yield high pay-offs for all involved stakeholders.

Rising Mobility Calls for Effective Inclusion

In 2015, there were 251 million international migrants, 78 million more than in 2000 and including 20 million refugees. At least three times more people migrate within countries than across borders, and about twice as many are displaced internally than internationally. Regional asymmetries, such as economic ones, as well as phenomena such as conflict and climate change will drive voluntary and forced migration further in the future. As more people move internally and internationally, better integration could yield significant benefits to migrants, host societies and governments (and even to sending regions)[ii]: Inclusion facilitates self-sufficiency and human development, which in turn reduces welfare costs, raises tax income, and improves social cohesion.[iii]

Successful integration, however, is a challenging two-way street between immigrants and host communities. Immigrants have different capacities to integrate, and host communities have different abilities and willingness to absorb them. The ability of host communities depends on various economic and institutional variables; their willingness or social receptiveness, in contrast, is shaped by beliefs and attitudes about immigrants. Thus, perceptions and social attitudes held by natives are highly important for integration dynamics; they form one of the two pillars of a host society’s absorption capacity.

Among many misperceptions, host societies tend to err by wide margins in the pace, scale, and impacts of immigration. Even if data proves different,[iv] this can elevate a sense of anxiousness and perceived threats. Such feelings complicate integration needlessly for two reasons. First, they directly fuel exclusion, discrimination, and violence that undermine social cohesion, as witnessed in various regions of the world. In Germany, for instance, more than 200 asylum seekers were injured in attacks in the first half of 2016 alone, a more than threefold increase as compared to midyear 2015.[v] Such violence and less manifest exclusion threaten integration drastically. Second, negative perceptions and sentiments can indirectly lead to restrictive policies that obstruct more positive immigration outcomes. For instance, studies by the OECD and EU show how restrictions can prolong labor market integration of refugees by years. Similarly, harsh asylum policies not only violate human dignity, but can also largely increase financial costs for governments.[vi]

Thus, intergroup prejudices and negative sentiments resulting in exclusion and inhospitable policies ultimately impose costs on all societal stakeholders. They imperil social cohesion as well as human development. Mitigating prejudices and anxieties should therefore rank high on the agenda of policy makers, which holds also true from a legal viewpoint: Public international law establishes inclusion rights for both displaced persons and migrants.[vii]

Contact as a Potent Win-Win-Win Tool

While a variety of factors shape attitudes towards perceived ‘outgroups’, extensive empirical evidence shows that contact is one of the most effective entry points to counter prejudices and negative emotions. A meta-review of 515 experimental studies involving 250,000 participants in 38 nations finds that intergroup contact significantly lessens prejudice across nations, genders, and age groups, by reducing anxiety and enhancing empathy. The synthesis of 50 years of research shows how individuals generalize their positive contact experiences to the entire perceived ‘outgroup’ and even other ethnic groups. Contact also positively changes attitudes towards social policies critical to integration.[viii]

These laboratory findings are confirmed in a meta-review of 123 real-world contact interventions with more than 11,300 participants, showing that contact effectively reduces prejudices and tensions between ethnic groups.[ix] Contact works in direct face-to-face settings, but also in indirect formats, such as through a friend knowing immigrants, observing how others interact with, and even reading about or imagining contact with immigrants. Optimal conditions such as institutional support for the contact facilitate particularly positive outcomes, yet are not necessary prerequisites for success. That said, negative contact in involuntary and threat-producing encounters can exacerbate prejudices and anxieties and need to be avoided as much as possible. Yet even where negative contact cannot be averted, it can be neutralized by previous experiences of positive contact.[x]

To illustrate these findings, a UNHCR study showed that only 20% of Austrians in personal contact with displaced persons described their experiences as negative, as opposed to 68% of the rest of society.[xi] Thus, while no panacea, evidence shows that contact can be a powerful tool for increased trust and reduced anxieties for both immigrants and natives. For policy makers, building contact is a win-win-win tool: It simultaneously helps immigrants, natives, and governments by providing more fertile grounds for integration that ultimately yields pay-offs for the whole society (and even sending regions).

Building Contact

Creating contact constitutes a powerful, flexible, and highly adjustable policy tool that has proven successful in many real-life interventions. To tap the potentials of contact, a three-pronged approach is detailed below. Civil society, donors and interested public institutions should jointly pursue a multi-level approach to create more contact between natives and immigrants. Interventions should be adapted to local contexts, build on good practices, and embrace sound sequencing and timing.

First, contact strategies should aim to ‘tap the untapped’, i.e. to map and cater to existing interest in contact through tailored matchmaking efforts. In Germany in 2014, for instance, as much as 42% of natives were interested in getting to know asylum seekers and 66% ready to support them; yet only 22% were in relevant contact with, while 47% had never met asylum seekers.[xii] Established good practices to foster direct contact include early integration at community-level, equal access to education, language training, productive activities, and integrative housing, as well creating platforms for structured intergroup contact. Conditions known to enhance the benefits of such contact include institutional support for the contact, pursuing joint goals, cooperation, and equal status in the encounter.[xiii]

Second, prejudices, anxieties, and perceived threats lead to the avoidance of direct contact. Where strong biases exist, structured direct contact techniques have proven beneficial. In these cases, it is also highly important to ensure that indirect contact is positive. Indirect contact may be increased by educational and community interventions, information campaigns, supportive public framing and media reporting, as well as giving immigrants voice and visibility themselves. Indirect vehicles have a wide reach across society, and public institutions hold significant leverage in shaping them. Providing accurate data and information is a proven policy instrument to counter misbelieves, as embraced by the World Bank’s Global Knowledge Partnership on Migration and Development (KNOMAD), IOM’s Global Migration Data Analysis Centre (GMDAC) and others.

Third, segregation is often perpetuated by systematic barriers. Lifting such institutionalized obstacles could broaden contact opportunities across the board. Barriers to contact include segregated housing such as large asylum reception facilities, time spent in isolating reception processes, and constraints on employment. Such obstacles can (re-)produce detachment on the side of natives, but also exacerbate impediments on the part of immigrants, such as linguistic and cultural barriers. These systematic barriers thus constitute key entry points for policy makers seeking to break cycles of segregation and alienation.

Conclusion and Outlook

In conclusion, with human mobility likely to increase further and surrounding prejudices and anxieties reaching a startling scale, new evidence-based action is needed. Building contact between natives and immigrants has a strong empirical track record in improving attitudes and in creating demand for better policies. It is adjustable to numerous contexts and allows for a flexible multi-level implementation. Ultimately, contact can be an effective win-win-win-tool yielding benefits for all stakeholders.

Recognizing the need for better approaches to large movements of refugees and migrants, the UN will convene a summit on 19 September 2016. In line with the recommendations given here, the UN Secretary General has launched a global campaign ‘emphasizing direct personal contact between host communities and refugees and migrants.’[xiv] In the latest Draft Declaration, all heads of state pledged support to this contact-building strategy and promised ‘a range of steps to counter [xenophobic] attitudes and behavior’.[xv] It would be an important and much needed leap forward if tangible action followed.


[i] European Commission, ‘Standard Eurobarometer 83: Public Opinion in the European Union’ (2015).

[ii] Daniel Cervan-Gil, ‘Host Society Integration as a Development Vector: A Literature Review’ (2016). KNOMAD Working Paper 9.

[iii] Oecd, Making integration work: Refugees and others in need of protection (2016).

[iv] Ipsos MORI, ‘Perceptions and Reality: Public Attitudes to Immigration’ (2014); GMF, ‘Transatlantic Trends: Mobility, Migration and Integration’ (2014).

[v] Amadeu Antonio Stiftung and Pro Asyl, ‘Neue Dimension der Gewalt’ (30 June 2016) <; accessed 25 July 2016.

[vi] Oecd (n 3); E. R Thielemann, Richard. Williams and Christina Boswell, ‘What System Of Burden-Sharing Between Member States For The Reception Of Asylum Seekers?’ (2010).

[vii] UN General Assembly, ‘In safety and dignity: addressing large movements of refugees and migrants: Report of the Secretary-General, A/70/59’ (2016).

[viii] Thomas F Pettigrew and Linda R Tropp, When groups meet: The dynamics of intergroup contact (Psychology Press 2011).

[ix] Gunnar Lemmer and Ulrich Wagner, ‘Can we really reduce ethnic prejudice outside the lab?: A meta-analysis of direct and indirect contact interventions’ (2015) 45(2) EJSP 152.

[x] Stefania Paolini and others, ‘Positive and extensive intergroup contact in the past buffers against the disproportionate impact of negative contact in the present’ (2014) 44(6) EJSP 548.

[xi] UNHCR, ‘Stimmungslage der österreichischen Bevölkerung in Bezug auf Asylsuchende’ (2011) <; accessed 21 July 2016.

[xii] Robert Bosch Stiftung, ‘Asyl und Asylbewerber: Wahrnehmungen und Haltungen der Bevölkerung 2014’ (2014).

[xiii] Pettigrew and Tropp (n 8).

[xiv] UN General Assembly, ‘In safety and dignity: addressing large movements of refugees and migrants’ (n 7) 11, 15.

[xv] UN General Assembly, ‘Draft Declaration For High-Level Meeting To Address Large Movements Of Refugees And Migrants’ (12 July 2016) Para. 1.11 <; accessed 25 July 2016.

Jonas Bergmann is a consultant for the KNOMAD Thematic Working Group on Migration and Environmental Change as well as for the Climate Policy Team at the World Bank. Prior to this, Mr. Bergmann worked and interned with the Institute for the Study of International Migration, Human Rights Watch, the Berkeley Center, the Global Public Policy Institute, the International Human Rights Unit of the German Foreign Service, and the Chilean National Human Right Institute. Mr. Bergmann has also participated in various refugee and migration networks and co-founded two local empowerment NGOs in Germany and the USA. Migration, Human Rights, and Sustainable Development have constituted key areas of interest in both his graduate studies as a Fulbright/DAAD fellow in the M.Sc. in Foreign Service at Georgetown University and in his B.A. in International Affairs in Dresden, Valparaíso, and Lyon.

The author wishes to thank Dr. Sylvie Graf, Dr. Stefania Paolini, and Prof. Dr. Uli Wagner for their helpful comments on an earlier draft.

Leave a comment

Filed under attitudes towards immigrants, immigrant integration

The U.S. Refugee Resettlement System: A Different Kind of Integration Challenge

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.

Leave a comment

Filed under immigrant integration, refugee resettlement, Refugees

Mobile Lives: Musings about ethnographic research on migration

My blog post with Marek Pawlak on ethnographic research and migration. This is a blog related to a project on Polish female migration to Norway.

Leave a comment

Filed under ethnographic research, methodology

Brexit…. Precursor to PLexit and Trumpdom?


Like the rest of the world I woke up to the shocking news about Brexit. On a more personal note, the first thing in my Facebook feed was a blog by a colleague, Nando Sigona, on his feeling the morning after … I have no words, in any language, to console Nando.

I have not lived in Europe for many years, but I am Polish by birth and American by happenstance. I fear both for my motherland and for my adopted country. I am afraid that Poland is not far away from wanting to exit the European Union. The ruling party of Law and Justice (sic!) is already making waves about being “put on its knees” by the EU! The All Polish Youth, a nationalistic youth organization, wants freedom and independence, argues against accepting refugees and immigrants. Poland after all should be for Poles! — they shout as they march through cities and towns wrapped up in Polish flags and adorned with nationalistic symbols. God, Honor, and Fatherland are their values, not diversity and acceptance. As Daniel Passent wrote on his blog this morning, the effects of Brexit will adversely affect Poles, both those living in Poland and those residing in the UK. Ironically, many of the latter ones expressed their dissatisfaction—often in uncertain terms and vulgar language—with the growing diversity in Great Britain. Now the shoe is on the other foot: 75 percent of Boston—one of the largest concentrations of Poles in the UK—residents voted to leave the EU.

On my side of the Atlantic Ocean, the Donald prized Brexit. No surprises here: The fear mongering that led to Brexit has been part of his modus operandi during the ongoing presidential campaign. UK is leaving EU, the US might become a Trumpdom, surrounded by a tall fence, and living in “splendid isolation” from the outside world. Today, the Donald calls for deportations of Mexicans and barring all Muslims from entering the United States. Who will he target tomorrow? Polish Catholics? Mixed race Americans? Who else?

We, the American voters, should not dismiss Brexit, we should fear that it will only fuel the appetites of Drumpf’s supporters. What? You say they don’t follow international politics! Perhaps not, but they certainly listen to their Fürer!

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized