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date: 21 September 2021

Refugees in the United States and the Politics of Crisis

Abstract and Keywords

Labeling a refugee migration as a “crisis” is not an inevitable action to large-scale forced migration. It is a choice that is steeped in racial, gender, and colonialist politics. The choice to label a situation a crisis might have underlying it good intentions for highlighting migrants’ dire situations, but it can also have negative discursive (and potentially material) consequences. Discursively, labeling a crisis could justify a more defensive stance than a humanitarian approach, leading to greater border enforcement and less willingness to provide protection and assistance to refugees. This chapter outlines some of the negative responses that are typical in US discourse on refugees, and how those responses tend to misinterpret the real nature of refugee crises, using the situation of Central American asylum seekers entering the United States in the mid-2010s as an exemplar.

Keywords: : refugee, migration control, racism, sexism, Islamophobia, Central American, asylum seekers

The phrase “refugee crisis” frequently gets thrown around, and more often than not we take for granted that we know what it means. But do we? The label “crisis” connotes numerous types of potential threats to safety and stability, and many of these threats have particular gendered consequences that are not immediately obvious. In the context of migration to the United States, where the face of a dangerous migrant is usually a brown-skinned man and the face of a dependent migrant is often a brown-skinned woman with children, using the term “refugee crisis” to describe a particular migration flows is not an apolitical act. Rather, it is a way of framing a migration situation in such a way that it garners an emotional reaction, either one of compassion, fear, or even anger. But it often obscures the real nature of the migration, the challenges and possibilities it presents, and while “crisis” can motivate quick action, it does not always facilitate action that is thoughtful and effective.

When the term “crisis” is used to refer to refugees entering, attempting to enter, or even just potentially entering the United States, it is worthwhile to ask some key questions:

  1. 1. What makes this situation a crisis? Is it concerns about the number of people entering the United States, the speed at which they are entering, who they are or where they are coming from, or the ability of the United States government or civil society to process, accommodate, or otherwise integrate them?

  2. 2. For whom is this a crisis? Is it a crisis for the US government, the government of the sending country, the migrants themselves, or the people currently living in the United States (or a particular subset of those people)? What are the different options for responding to the crisis that different parties have? Are some parties’ options more limited than others?

  3. (p. 164) 3. What are the consequences of using the language of crisis? Who benefits and who is harmed by such language?

Additionally, it is key for understanding the particular problem at hand, and the nature of migration more broadly, to delineate between “crisis” and “challenge.” Migration of all kinds tends to introduce challenges, because change is challenging and migration is inherently about change. What differentiates between a challenge and a crisis is the response; challenges do not always evolve into crises unless the challenges are not sufficiently addressed. In this chapter, I will critique the imprecise and sometimes reckless use of the term “crisis” in the context of refugees coming to the United States, interrogate what people might mean when they refer to a refugee “crisis,” and describe what the data indicate about the reality of admission and integration of refugees into US society. Using the recent case of Central American asylum seekers coming to the United States, I will illustrate how assumptions surrounding the term “crisis” fuel wrongheaded policies that do not solve the problems presented by refugee migrations and cause harm to refugees themselves.

What Does “Crisis” Really Mean?

When people refer to the “refugee crisis,” they are expressing a concern or fear about the situation of a given refugee migration. Some aspect of that situation presents challenges that people deem to be threatening, either to themselves or to others, including the refugees involved. Perhaps most often the use of the label “crisis” emerges from a perceived threat from rather than to refugees, that the particular refugee migration presents challenges that require repelling, isolating, or even detaining or imprisoning the refugees. So what threats does the American public perceive in current day refugee migrations? These usually fall into one of four categories: refugees are security threats, there are too many refugees and they will drain resources, the people coming are not true refugees and thus not deserving of protection, and the refugees cannot or will not assimilate and therefore will be a long-term burden to the United States.

Refugees present a security threat: This concern has become more acute as the refugees resettled in the United States have increasingly come from Muslim-dominant countries, particularly since September 11, 2001. Gendered and racial politics are embedded in these discourses of refugees as a source of threat. Muslim men’s masculinity is constructed as dangerous and foreign (Kimmel 2003), framing any male refugee from a Muslim-majority country as too dangerous to resettle in the United States, rather than someone who is fleeing danger and thus in need of protection. This discourse has emerged not from any evidence of danger in the United States but rather in response to terrorist attacks overseas. Pending legislation such as the Security Against Foreign Enemies (SAFE) Act, which was passed by the US House of Representatives in November 2015 but has not moved forward since, was created in response to a recent (p. 165) terrorist attack in Paris committed by French nationals (not refugees), and required an additional background check for refugees originating from Iraq or Syria. The additional background check described was actually less thorough than what had been instituted as part of the refugee resettlement system following 9/11, making the legislation seem more like a political statement than something that would address a real security issue with resettling refugees (and may have been written by legislators or their aides that were unfamiliar with the security checks already in place). The current system requires screenings conducted by the US Department of State, the Department of Homeland Security, the Federal Bureau of Investigations, and the Bureau of Counterterrorism, and involves DNA and biometric data to ensure that the applicant is not already on a terror watch list. For countries like Syria, in which individuals likely had direct contact with government agents or insurgent fighters, the screening process often goes much longer than the two-year average advertised by the Department of State because each moment of contact with a persecuting regime requires a battery of questions. The process is now so vigorous that, short of better information sharing that might identify low-level combatants that would not be eligible for resettlement, it is difficult to imagine the procedures being any stricter without eliminating resettlement entirely.

There have been complete halts of refugee resettlement, in efforts to assess the system for national security weaknesses. Following 9/11, all resettlement was stopped for three months while the US government assessed the existing security procedures (it was after this time that procedures were strengthened). After three months the resettlement of certain groups considered to be lower security risks were restarted (mainly those fleeing communist regimes like Uzbekistan), but other groups that were considered higher risk (and tend to be criminalized more broadly, such as African refugees) had their resettlement delayed much longer. The Trump administration’s so-called “Muslim Ban” (referred to this way because of Donald Trump’s campaign promise of a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States”; see Johnson 2015) is another example of a policy that targeted many refugee- sending countries (Saudi Arabia, for example, was not on the banned list) under the auspices of security concerns about refugees. Given that no person has been found to have entered the United States on a refugee visa with the intent of committing a terrorist act (unlike what has happened with student and business visas), the focus on refugees as a security threat is misplaced, and contributes to the marginalization of already marginalized migrants.

It also is a misplaced concern for the kinds of refugee migrations that usually come to the United States, a country whose geographic location limits any unmanaged refugee migration. Unlike the top refugee hosting countries of Turkey or Pakistan, the United States does not share any land borders with major refugee-sending countries, and is bounded on the east and west by large oceans that limit which migrants can make their way to US shores. So even the challenges for Greece, which during parts of 2015 was receiving over one thousand asylum seekers every day, are not challenges for the United States. The Greek government, while they could have anticipated the influx, did not have the proper resources allocated to border enforcement to process the large numbers of migrants who were coming to their country. By contrast, the (p. 166) United States almost never receives such large numbers of refugees or asylum seekers unexpectedly; in recent times only the migration of Central American asylum seekers come close, and even the number of border apprehensions is much smaller than what the United States managed during high migration periods of unauthorized migrations from Mexico. This fact emerges from a particular history of colonialism and global economic development; it is not an inevitable result of natural history. Thus, it is subject to change through the unfolding of history. But given current conditions, there is nothing that would warrant the fear of mass refugee flows into the United States that appears to be fueling present-day anti-refugee sentiment and reactive migration policies.

While the security measures have been increased substantially in the past sixteen years, it is another question whether or not such enhanced security is even necessary. The current conception of refugees as security threats is particularly directed at refugees coming from Muslim-majority countries,1 with the stereotypes of Muslim men as terrorists part of a broader fearmongering about Arab and Middle Eastern masculinity being inherently dangerous. When not treated as terrorists, Muslim men are assumed to be rapists that pose a threat to native-born women (Rettberg and Gajjala 2016), an assumption that is connected to a larger moral crusade that has justified US and Western intervention in the Middle East in the interests of saving Muslim women from Muslim men (Abu-Lughod 2013). These assumptions are not born out by evidence, as research consistently shows that immigrants to the United States generally are less likely to commit crimes than US native-borns (Chavez and Griffiths 2009; Martinez and Lee 2000; Rumbaut et al. 2006), and the claims that Muslim immigrant men present an acute sexual danger to non-Muslim women has not been supported by data (Dagistanli and Grewal 2012).

There are too many refugees; we do not have the resources to support them. Resource allocation is always a contentious debate, and when it comes to resources that might go to noncitizens it is usually followed up with the phrase “we need to help our own people.” Embedded in this concern are two issues; how much resources refugees might require, and their worthiness to receive those resources (or any resources at all).

When considering whether the current number of refugees entering the United States is a problem of crisis proportions, it is worth comparing those numbers to other countries. The United States has long been the top resettlement country in the world; in most years about half of all refugees resettled come to the United States. But less than 1 percent of the world’s refugees are resettled, so those that are resettled are already a very small proportion of the total population. Hosting countries, those that have refugees enter their country usually as a country of first asylum, crossing over directly from the country from which they are fleeing, bear a much larger burden than resettlement countries. (p. 167)

Below is Figure 9.1 from the Migration Policy Institute showing the historical trajectory of refugee admissions to the United States, both the annual ceilings (or upper limits) that Congress set and how many refugees were actually admitted. It begins in 1980, which marked the passage of the Refugee Act, the legislation that regularized refugee admissions to the United States and created the resettlement program that we have in place today.

Refugees in the United States and the Politics of Crisis

Figure 9.1 U.S. Annual Refugee Resettlement Ceilings and Number of Refugees Admitted, Fiscal Years 1980–2017.

Source: Data from Migration Policy Institute (MPI). Available at

This graph demonstrates that the ceilings for admissions over the past fifteen years is at historical lows, with actual admissions since 2001 being among the lowest since the passage of the Refugee Act. Considering that the United States admitted far more refugees through most of the 1980s and 1990s when the United States population was lower and the economy smaller, it stands to reason that the current resources we have to resettle refugees is not necessarily insufficient. This is especially true given that in real dollars much less is spent on resettlement than it was in the past. Rather, this figure indicates that the United States has sufficient resources to resettle far more refugees than it currently does, and that the problem is more of a lack of priority for resettling refugees.

The claim that there are too many refugees for the United States to protect may emerge from a conflation of a refugee “crisis” in the United States with what is happening in hosting countries and regions with large numbers of asylum seekers like Europe: the state of refugee migrations worldwide tends to shape how we perceive refugee migrations into the United States. When large numbers of refugees (mostly from Syria and Afghanistan but also northern Africa) were entering EU countries in 2015, that sense of invasion that dominated European discourses trickled into the public debates in the United States, and some people referenced the problems that EU countries had (p. 168) processing large numbers of asylum seekers that they were not prepared to handle with the very different challenges that refugee migrations presented to the United States. Unlike Greece and Italy, the United States is not located near a country currently sending refugees. So refugee migrations into the United States have always been far more orderly than the recent migrations into Europe, and overall numbers are far lower than countries like Turkey, Pakistan, and Jordan which have received millions of asylum seekers and have far fewer resources to allocate (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees 2016a). So the term “global refugee crisis” is exceptionally misleading; it is more accurate to say that large-scale refugee migrations are reaching a crisis level in certain countries or regions, but the vast majority of countries are only indirectly affected if at all.

Similar to the discourses about dangerous Muslim men, the discourses in Europe were often around the threats that culturally “backwards” refugee men posed to the liberal democratic values of Europe. These discourses were mobilized with great effect in the Brexit campaign, in which large billboards showing a seemingly endless stream of mostly brown-skinned men were used to influence Brits to vote in favor of exiting the European Union. Again, these migration flows were not coming directly into the UK; the photos were taken in southern Europe where states like Greece and Bulgaria were receiving the sudden influx of asylum seekers. But the specter of these migrants eventually making their way to the UK was enough to sway many Brits to vote in favor of Brexit (Dobiles 2017).

The possible exception to the United States’s isolation from large-scale influxes of refugees and asylum seekers has been the migrants originating from Central America (specifically El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala) and entering from Mexico. While small in number compared to asylum seekers entering Europe through the Mediterranean corridor, there was a sharp increase in 2014 of migrants from what is called the “Northern Triangle,” and it garnered more media attention than past migrations because of the large proportion of migrants who were children (both with families and unaccompanied minors). The case of Central American asylum seekers is a good one for comparing how the United States responds to a refugee “crisis” that is more similar to what is found either in Europe recently or in countries of first asylum, which, because they generally share a land border with a refugee-sending country, must respond to situations that can more aptly be called “refugee crises” than the largely unfounded security concerns about the US refugee resettlement system.

The other issue, the worthiness of refugees to receive public resources, is part of the debate about how the rights of social citizenship should be extended to refugees. Social citizenship involves the right to belong in a state, including the worthiness to use the public resources of that state (King and Waldron 1988; Marshall 1964; Powell 2002). Refugees are admitted to the United States because of their need for protection, unlike other immigrants whose admission is mostly predicated on their ability to be self-sufficient, or supported by family members already in the United States, or in other ways being “productive.” Refugees are admitted regardless of their potential to be economically dependent on the state, and this has made them worthier of state resources, at least within the hierarchy of non-citizens. In the popular American imagination, the (p. 169) involuntary nature of their migration positions refugees as “deserving” poor who are worthier of social welfare benefits than other migrants (Fujiwara 2005).

However, with the expansion of neoliberalism the benefits of social citizenship are deteriorating, leading to greater privatization of resources that had formally been the responsibility of the state. Somers (2008) refers to this as “market fundamentalism” and Brodie (1997) calls it “market citizenship.” Market citizenship defines state membership based on a person’s economic productivity, so rather than being worthy of state resources because of legal citizenship or legal presence in a state territory, worthiness is constructed based on how much an individual can contribute economically (Brodie 1997, 2000). The neoliberal move towards market citizenship has presented a particular burden on refugees, who are often limited in their ability to contribute economically through a number of barriers ranging from a lack of wealth, insufficient linguistic skills, lack of social networks, and educational and literacy levels that do not give them access to living wage jobs (Nawyn 2011, 2013). Gender and family dynamics also come into play, with refugee households that include a larger ratio of healthy adults to dependents having an easier time achieving self-sufficiency while single mothers face both the inability to bring in enough money for their households to survive and the stigma that American culture attaches to dependency (Grace, Nawyn, and Okwako 2018). Given the wealth and economic power of the United States, claims that the United States does not have enough resources to help refugees is really a claim that refugees are not worthy of state resources, or that under neoliberalism the resources of the state are no longer available to people based on economic need.

These Refugees Will Never Assimilate or Acculturate; They Will Change the Culture or Demographics of the United States: Concerns about the potential of different immigrant groups to assimilate is long-standing, and it has shaped many of the restrictionist policies in the United States. During the early period of migration management, we had the Chinese Exclusion Act (limiting Chinese immigration), the Gentleman’s Act (limiting Japanese immigration), and the Emergency Quota Act (setting national quotas that limited nonwhite immigration broadly), all based on the premise that these migrant groups would never become “American.” It is fair to expect that immigration will change the demographics of the United States; we have new racial and ethnic categories for Americans because of immigration, and the US Census Bureau projects that people of Anglo-European descent will become the majority-minority group in the United States by 2044 (Colby and Ortman 2015). However, it is also fair to interrogate the categorization of that as a “concern” or “problem” and examine the white supremacist underpinnings that construct racial and ethnic demographic shifts as inherently bad.

Compared to many countries outside of the Americas, the United States has a long history of integrating immigrants into its society, albeit not without conflict but not with the level of conflict seen in some European countries or less developed countries elsewhere. For refugees in particular, integration takes time but we see similar rates of naturalization for the same refugee groups between Canada and the United States, despite disparities in naturalization rates for nonrefugee groups (Bloemraad 2006). A study by (p. 170) the Pew Research Center (2011) found that Muslim Americans widely adopted mainstream American values.

Immediately following resettlement it is typical for refugees to be underemployed, and for highly educated refugees to experience downward mobility compared to their occupational status in their home country. But over time, with greater experience in the US labor market, improved language skills, and extended social networks, most refugees improve markedly. Although still underemployed compared to their pre-migration skills, most Vietnamese refugees who arrived in the 1970s acquired basic fluency within twenty-seven months (Stein 1979). Economic integration now takes longer, as newer cohorts of refugees tend to start at a greater earnings disadvantage (Capps et al. 2015). But with greater English fluency and social networks with established co-ethnics and white Americans, they still experience positive economic improvements (Mamgain and Collins 2003; Nawyn et al. 2012).

It is worth noting that integration is a two-way street. Refugees benefit from having higher levels of human and social capital, and they need to make a concerted effort to advance in US society following resettlement. But social structures that exclude and marginalized refugees make successful integration less likely to happen (Phillimore and Goodson 2006). The United States has a better track record than many European countries in terms of creating economic structures of opportunities for refugees, in part because the singular focus on economic self-sufficiency does not just open opportunities to enter paid employment for refugees, but requires it. The “jobs first” focus has historically led to better outcomes than other resettlement regimes that tend to isolate refugees more over concerns that they crowd out citizens from the labor market (Peisker and Tilbury 2003). However, the time during which resettlement cash assistance is available to refugees has shrunk from five years in the 1980s (Rumbaut 1989) to between one and three months currently in most states (Nawyn 2011). This may lead to an erosion of integration, or an increase in the time required for refugees to achieve some modicum of self-sufficiency or feeling of belonging in the United States.

Rather than conceptualizing integration as an individual-level process that is based on the choices that migrants make (i.e., to put in time and effort to learn the dominant language versus spending time in the ethnic community rather than interacting with the host society), integration is better understood as an interaction between individual-level characteristics, community characteristics, and receiving society institutions and systems. Much scholarship on immigrant integration demonstrates that access to rights is foundational to successful integration. Ager and Strang (2008) argue that citizenship and rights provide a foundation that supports the learning of language and cultural knowledge, achieving stability and safety in the receiving society, and the development of social capital in which migrants expand their social networks beyond their ethnic community to host society residents.

Ager and Strang (2008) and others also note the importance of understanding integration as multifaceted. The refugee resettlement program in the United States focuses primarily and almost exclusively on facilitating the entry of refugees in the paid labor market (Nawyn 2011). The United States government defines the acquisition of paid (p. 171) employment as achieving economic self-sufficiency, even though the employment may not be (and often isn’t at first) sufficient for supporting an entire household. The focus on the integration of individual refugees rather than households and the needs of households that may have many dependents and few able-bodied adults of working age tends to make this gap in “employment-self-sufficiency” invisible in resettlement metrics (Grace, Nawyn, and Okwako 2018).

There is also no consideration for the gendered needs of refugees that, when not met, might inhibit holistic integration. The problem of refugee women who experienced sexual violence prior to resettlement (a common experience for refugees fleeing certain situations) is not explicitly addressed by the “jobs first” approach of US resettlement, and absent any treatment threatens to leave those women feeling anxious, vulnerable, and poorly equipped to engage with their new communities (Wachter et al. 2016). Gendered stereotypes also shape the institutional resources available to refugee women, with assistance organizations facilitating refugee women’s entry into gendered occupations that are often low-paid but easier for refugee women to access (Nawyn 2010). But refugee women also interact with these institutions in ways that reinvent gender relations (Koyama 2014). Ultimately, there is no stagnant culture or social system to which refugees are integrating; over time most successfully become part of US society and their local communities in ways that preserve some aspects of culture but also contribute to its inevitable evolution.

People Claiming Refugee Status Are Not Really Refugees: This concern is more commonly expressed in Europe, as exemplified by Slovak prime minister Robert Fico when he declared that “95% of these people [migrants entering Europe in the summer of 2015] are economic migrants” (Vasagar, Byrne, and Barker 2015). Refugee and asylum seekers represent a larger proportion of the total migrant population in Europe, and more often involve asylum seekers who have yet to be vetted, compared to refugees who are resettled in the United States after a lengthy vetting process. But it also happens in the United Stares, calling into question the obligation of the United States to provide protection to certain groups. As Hathaway (2002) argues, refugee law is not immigration law, and involves a different balance between international obligations and national sovereignty. If migrants are legitimate refugees, states have greater international responsibilities to them. This is why states have at times kept asylum seekers from entering their territory, as Hathaway describes in the case of Australia refusing to allow rescued refugees to dock at an Australian port (2002). It is also why states and other actors attempt to delegitimate refugees, which moves them from the category of state responsibility to deportable subjects.

While most refugees who enter the United States do so through resettlement and have been recognized as refugees by the US government, Central American migrants who have been coming to the United States seeking asylum for decades have not been frequently granted that same recognition. Refugee adjudication is a political process that is shaped by political circumstances, and in the United States the status determination of Central American asylum seekers has been strongly influenced by the Cold War in which asylum seekers fleeing communist regimes were granted protection but (p. 172) asylum seekers fleeing similar situations from other regimes were not (Coutin 2011). Hamlin (2012) argues that during the Cold War the US government created the category of “refugee” and “asylum seeker” separately from that of “migrant,” with an explicitly politicized conception that reflected fears about the spread of Communism. Further, during the 1960s and 1970s the number of asylum seekers was relatively small, which kept pressure on the asylum adjudication process to a minimum. Hence, the asylum policy was linked with refugee policy (which was regularized by the 1980 Refugee Act) and international politics, and was relatively insulated from domestic policy and migration controls. The end of the Cold War coincided with a surge of asylum seekers globally. This precipitated a shift in asylum adjudication that still privileged asylum seekers fleeing communist regimes (who, like in the case of Cubans, could be categorized as “special entrants”), but tied asylum to the increasing attempts to protect the US southern border from unauthorized crossings.

It was within this historical context of residual anticommunism and much greater focus on border enforcement that the numbers of Central Amerian asylum seekers increased. Many Central American asylum seekers coming to the United States were granted Temporary Protected Status (TPS), rather than asylum which would give them the opportunity to apply for legal permanent residency. TPS is granted for a particular period of time, and can be extended but also discontinued, leaving migrants in a state of liminal legality (Menjívar 2006a) in which their legal limbo negatively affects all aspects of their lives (Menjívar 2011). This includes family life, as TPS recipients cannot sponsor family members to come to the United States, often leading to family separation (Menjívar 2006b, Menjívar 2012). TPS in no way replicates the protection of asylum, and the refusal of the US government to recognize certain Central Americans as legitimate refugees while granting asylum to other Central Americans who have had similar experiences of persecution, has devastating effects on individuals, families, and communities.

These four claims construct refugees as the source of crisis, rather than people suffering under crisis conditions. To claim that a person seeking protection is not a legitimate refugee is to claim that there is no crisis to begin with, except that the said person is attempting to enter the United States under false pretenses. To make the other claims is to acknowledge the legitimacy of the person’s flight but to absolve the United States of any responsibility to respond except to protect citizens from the refugee’s presence. Thus, the crisis becomes the presence of refugees and asylum seekers that the United States cannot or should not take in. These dynamics have played out in the case of Central American asylum seekers coming to the United States.

(p. 173) Refugee Crisis in the United States: Central American Asylum Seekers

While most refugee migrations to the United States have been predictable and regularized, the migration of Central American asylum seekers is a recent exception. The US-Mexico border has for decades been a contentious geopolitical space where national security and sovereignty, transnationalism, and global capitalism have intersected. The focus had been almost entirely on the porousness (or lack thereof) of capital, drugs, and Mexican migrants, with both US and Mexican policies focused on how to maximize the economic partnership between the two countries while still limiting the movement of illicit materials (both drugs and guns) and enacting Janus-faced agendas that in some cases encouraged and in others discouraged human migration. But starting in the early 2000s increasing violence in El Salvador, Guatemala, and especially Honduras led to increased displacement of people from those countries and drew them to the United States where long-standing migration ties with their home countries, relative political stability, and a regularized asylum adjudication process existed. In 2014 there was a large spike in the number of apprehensions of Central Americans at the US-Mexico border, although “apprehensions” is a bit misleading; these were migrants who did not have authorization to enter the United States but most submitted themselves to authorities quickly and requested asylum. The numbers dropped in 2015, then jumped back up in 2016 (Musalo and Lee 2017).

The increase made news headlines for a couple reasons. The first was the rise in Central American asylum seekers proportionate to total apprehensions. Overall the number of apprehensions was small compared to previous years. Total border apprehensions dropped, and the number of Central Americans apprehended, while larger than previous years, was not as dramatic a change as one might think. But because the number of Mexican migrants apprehended dropped precipitously, Central American apprehensions became more visible than they had in previous years. The second reason was that the migrants being apprehended included many more children than had been seen before, both coming with families and as unaccompanied minors. The greater presence of children highlighted the desperate situation of the migrants (i.e., that the situation in the sending countries had grown bad enough that people would risk sending their children through Mexico to the United States, sometimes unaccompanied), and presented new challenges for housing child migrants and processing their asylum claims.

This situation was labeled a crisis for a couple of reasons. First, the number of asylum claims from the Northern Triangle increased in several countries, including Costa Rica and Belize as well as Mexico and the United States. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) released a press briefing stating that there was an asylum claim increase of 176 percent in Costa Rica and ten-fold increase in Belize, and there was insufficient capacity in the asylum adjudication apparatuses to efficiently (p. 174) respond to the claims (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees 2016b). So across Central America and the southern portion of North America, asylum claims increased beyond the current capacity to process them (although capacities can be increased, and in the United States they were).

Second, the fact that so many asylum seekers were families and unaccompanied children required a different response from state and supra-governmental agencies tasked with protecting migrant rights. Unaccompanied migrant children cannot be released to their own guardianship the way that adult asylum seekers can, and detention facilities (where asylum seekers increasingly end up) designed for adults cannot appropriately accommodate children. While some of these children were put into foster care while their asylum cases were being considered, many ended up in detention facilities. The US federal government commissioned the construction of two new family detention facilities, paying a $1 billion contract to Corrections Corporation of America to house women and children specifically (Harlan 2016), so that children would not be detained in facilities designed for adults. But the conditions in some detention facilities are abhorrent; Riva (2017) argues that these detention facilities are intended to be carceral rather than protective, and that they are spaces in which the categories of asylum seeker, unwanted immigrant, and criminal are intermingled. In addition to inhumane physical conditions (with extremely cold cells and dog kennel-like quarters), women asylum seekers are commonly treated with violence from detention guards. Riva calls for greater scrutiny of how these facilities act as part of a deterrence strategy, in which harsh practices which are banned by official policy are nevertheless enacted as a way to discourage future asylum seekers from coming to the United States.

The limited rights afforded to adult asylum seekers, if not on paper than certainly in practice, took on heightened importance when unaccompanied children were involved. Asylum hearings are civil cases, not criminal, and thus the migrant who is seeking asylum does not have a right to an attorney the way an accused person in a criminal case would be. In a deposition filed for JEFM v. Lynch (2017), Judge Jack H. Weil argued that 3- and 4-year olds could be taught immigration law sufficiently so that they could represent themselves in immigration court. While that assertion has been challenged by numerous legal experts and the US Justice Department, it is not unusual for children to go through asylum procedures without legal representation (Bhabha and Schmidt 2008; Ataiants et al. 2017). While most immigration scholars have critiqued this practice as a source of crisis, in popular discourse it is the presence of the children itself that is constructed as a crisis, not how they are treated by the state.

The treatment of asylum seekers has arguably constituted human rights violations (Musalo and Lee 2017). For women and children in particular, the physical and sexual violence that many experienced en route to the United States demonstrates the desperate conditions that led them to seek asylum in the first place (Schmidt and Buechler 2017), and compounds the gravity of their treatment upon arrival. From the perspective of these asylum seekers, the violence they experience in their home country, throughout Mexico, and that which is enacted by the US state arguably constitutes a crisis.

(p. 175) But the response of the US government demonstrates a different understanding of crisis, positioning the presence of asylum seekers as the source of the problem. Although the Obama administration instituted the Central American Minors (CAM) program that allowed children to request asylum before leaving their home country (and thus avoid both a more dangerous journey to the United States without authorization and the challenges the state faced processing them after their arrival), the Trump administration plans to phase out CAM in fiscal year 2018 (Rosenberg and Torbati 2017).2 Gender and racial politics in the United States in late 2017 (as of this writing) are such that most immigrants are defined in public discourse as unwanted, and brown-skinned male migrants embody danger while brown-skinned female migrants embody dependence and cultural genocide. In this context, the presence of immigrants alone constitutes crisis. While refugees, especially those that are women or children, traditionally have been depicted as pitiable and worthy of empathy and assistance, increasingly the discourses of threat, resource drain, and cultural and demographic change have converged to create a hostile reception for even the most vulnerable refugees and asylum seekers.


The comparison of challenges posed by refugee migrations to the United States and other Global North countries to those experienced by countries in the Global South provide a window into how the term “crisis” gets defined in political ways that do not correspond to material situations. Countries of first asylum, such as Turkey (which hosts as of this writing over three million Syrians) or Pakistan (which hosts approximately 1.45 million, almost all Afghanis) face much more challenging conditions emerging from the movement of refugees across their borders. In addition to the much larger numbers, these migrations are less controlled; large numbers of people may show up at border crossings suddenly without time to process everyone, they may be in danger and not able to wait at or near the border before crossing, and people may arrive with many injuries and few material resources.

Conversely, refugees most often come to the United States with the benefit of pre-planning, and those entering through the resettlement program receive medical screenings, orientations, and sometimes even minimal English instruction before they arrive. With the exception of surges of asylum seekers (which are still numerically much smaller than the large movements of refugees managed by Global South countries), refugee migrations to the United States are far more predictable, and resources can be allocated based on expectations of need that can be anticipated with reasonably accuracy. Additionally, since passage of the Refugee Act, the United States has developed an intricate system of civil society organizations that are equipped with the knowledge of how best to integrate refugees into American society. While their programs aimed at achieving fast employment sometimes recreate existing gendered and racialized (p. 176) hierarchies in the labor market, they also have the flexibility to respond to the gendered integration needs of refugees.

Thus, the term “crisis” has very different meanings in the Global South compared to the Global North. While the source of the crisis in the Global South is often one of insufficient resources to deal with somewhat unexpected and sudden demands, in the Global North it might better be understood as insufficient political will to allocate resources towards the protection and integration of refugees. As nationalist populism expands globally, the benefits of crisis language appear to be accrued by those who maintain political power by stoking xenophobic and racist fears of refugees, constructing them as sources of danger and degradation of national culture and identity. And while crisis language can also motivate quick action and additional resources for refugees, in the current climate refugees are the losers in crisis language, as it has motivated hardened borders rather than compassionate assistance and protection.


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(1.) Refugees coming from Muslim-majority countries are commonly treated in popular discourse through the lens of Islamophobic tropes, whether or not the refugees themselves are Muslim. For example, many Iraqi refugees that come to the United States are Chaldean Christians, yet they often suffer the same Islamophobic stereotypes as Muslim Iraqis.

(2.) The CAM program had only limited success. Applications took a long time to process, making it untenable for minors who needed to escape immediate danger and the available slots were limited (Hipsman and Meissner 2015; Menjivar and Perreira, forthcoming).