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.