Abstract: Setting the Limits of Human Rights: US Resettlement Policy Discourse and the Rights-Bearing Refugee (Society for Social Work and Research 25th Annual Conference - Social Work Science for Social Change)

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Setting the Limits of Human Rights: US Resettlement Policy Discourse and the Rights-Bearing Refugee

Thursday, January 21, 2021
* noted as presenting author
Odessa Gonzalez-Benson, Assistant Professor, University of Michigan-Ann Arbor, MI
Background: The dominant narrative about the US Refugee Act of 1980 (the Act), the landmark legislation on refugees, is one of human rights (Hamlin & Wolgin, 2012). Human rights were increasingly being invoked as something that states had obligations to secure within their own borders. The Act is viewed as culminating legislation that finally brought the United States in line with the United Nations (Hamlin & Wolgin, 2012). Meanwhile, in the broader policy context, there was heightening market-orientation in state policies. Further, Vietnam War refugees were seeking refuge in the United States, a nation yet reeling from the Civil Rights while looking towards a post-Cold War era. It was in such a historical context – characterized by rights advocacy, neoliberalization, and geopolitical tensions-- that US policy-makers contended with refugees at the gates.

Methods: This study critically examines ‘rights talk’ via the formation of the U.S. Refugee Act. I used Critical Discourse Analysis (CDA) to examine policy debates in the U.S. Senate pertaining to the Act. Prior discursive analyses of the Act have focused on neoliberal messaging and discursive assumptions underlying the Act’s specific language use (Gonzalez Benson, 2016); however, an analysis of human rights discourse has not been conducted. Thus, in this analysis I asked: buoyed by a decade of human rights advocacy preceding it, with policy forms trending towards market orientations, and with the casualties of the Vietnam War at its shores, how did the U.S. policy sphere at the time make sense of the rights-bearing refugee? In related to CDA more broadly, this project highlights how discursive constructions of subjectivity impact and are reflected within the policy development process.

Findings: Policy testimonies evoked ‘rights talk’ only in introductory and rhetorical discussions, specifically about international aspects of the Act related to admissions. On the other hand, ‘human rights’ was largely absent in the domestic aspects of the Act, particularly those on service provision. What emerged in policy discourse was greater focus on “humanitarianism” of stakeholders, and the United States as “safe haven”. Furthermore, findings illustrate two deviant cases. The sole testimony pertaining to economic rights was by a civil rights advocate from the African American community; secondly, only one civil society organization that was refugee-run provided testimony.

Discussion: Discourse analysis illustrates how US refugee policy set the limits of human rights, at the perimeters of the nation. Set against contesting neoliberal discourses and power dynamics inherent to discourse, human rights were no match. Findings counter dominant narratives that portray U.S. refugee policy as rights-based, highlighting instead the politicizing of the refugee and the primacy of geopolitics. In order to remagine policy development with the goal of furthering social justice, such discursive examinations serve as a critical step toward policy transformation.