Abstract: The Limits of Rights Discourse within Sovereign Territory: Examining US Refugee Policy (Society for Social Work and Research 27th Annual Conference - Social Work Science and Complex Problems: Battling Inequities + Building Solutions)

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The Limits of Rights Discourse within Sovereign Territory: Examining US Refugee Policy

Sunday, January 15, 2023
Encanto B, 2nd Level (Sheraton Phoenix Downtown)
* noted as presenting author
Odessa Gonzalez Benson, PhD, MSW, Assistant Professor, University of Michigan-Ann Arbor
Background and Purpose:

Scholarly accounts on US refugee policy have focused on human rights as relevant for justifying definitions of refugees and, thus, their right to admission. However, analyses do not continue to examine the rest of the Act, specifically Title III on resettlement, which is no less important. Indeed, US refugee policy is not only about who should be admitted and how; policy is also about what ought to be done and how once refugees are resettled. In this paper, I examine how human rights are evoked in both refugee admissions and refugee resettlement as two aspects of US refugee policy. The “refugee” transitioning from the internationally governed refugee camp into the national political community illustrates the tensions between human rights and citizenship rights. In the context of the United States, the Refugee Act of 1980 as the landmark legislation on refugees represents a turning point, a crucial moment of policy formation when the US as nation-state came head-to-head with human rights most explicitly.


Using critical discourse analysis, this study examines the language within the policy sphere and the ideas and capacities of language to prefigure social policy and, in turn, social reality. CDA focuses not on language or discourse per se, but also upon the historical, ideological, and power-laden forms of language and discourse and how they yield interpretative and explanatory capacities. Further, CDA takes an explicitly critical position to research, whereby research is viewed as having social justice, transformative aims and embedded in society, rather than an objective and depersonalized means of uncovering truths. This critical lens departs from other forms of policy evaluation, such as quantitative and qualitative analyses of outcomes, case- and comparative studies, and cost-benefit analyses. The data analyzed consist of original government policy documents (500 pages) relating to the Refugee Act, specifically the 1979 congressional hearings with oral and/or written testimony and research of 25 witnesses, and reports on both global and national refugee issues. Analysis entailed immersion in the document: closely reading, re-reading and then coding the document by hand, utilizing sensitizing concepts as drawn from literature.


First, findings illustrate how human rights discourse was deployed for nation-building. The moral significance of human rights is deployed to legitimize and promote the United States’ role as global leader both historically and moving into the future. Second, findings illustrate that policy discourse evoked human rights only in discussions about international, externally-facing aspects of the Act about who should be admitted and how. On the contrary, human rights, as well as humanitarianism as their practice arm, are largely absent in discussions pertaining to service provision and assistance for refugees once resettled within domestic space.

Conclusion and Implications:

Policy discourse around the Refugee Act of 1980 illustrates the limits of human rights discourse once applied to the national space, thereby allowing discussion about human rights vis-à-vis citizenship rights. Refugee resettlement reveals the contradictory ways that the market and the state encroach in the neoliberal constitution of citizenship.