Refugee Marginalization: The human impact of a policy prioritizing economic self-sufficiency and rapid employment over other aspects of adaptation

Authors: Audrey Lumley-Sapanski*, Penn State University
Topics: Migration, Urban Geography, Ethnicity and Race
Keywords: refugees, adaptation, integration, forced migration, Chicago
Session Type: Paper
Day: 4/10/2018
Start / End Time: 2:40 PM / 4:20 PM
Room: Galvez, , Marriott, 5th Floor
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


The Refugee Act of 1980 created a uniform admissions policy and designed the domestic resettlement program. The goals of the program are: effective resettlement, absorption, and integration. To achieve these goals, refugees were initially given 36 months of public assistance during which time they were to acclimate and adapt, specifically to acquire language skills and job training.
The program today remains unchanged in terms of goals and architecture. However, the length and quantity of public assistance has been reduced substantially. Most refugees are now expected to become economically self-sufficient by 90 days.
Through interviews with 110 refugees and stakeholders, resettled between 2008 and 2012 within Chicago, I evaluate how and how well the program meets its goal of integration. I found that reductions in programmatic support—financial and human—which limited the time for linguistic or cultural adaptation, negatively impacted the program’s ability to achieve its goals. Most refugees achieve the goal of self-sufficiency shortly after arrival, meaning they do not receive governmental cash assistance. However, five years post arrival they remain in low wage, entry level employment with few prospects for upward mobility. Many subsist below the poverty line, reliant on governmental support including SNAP and LIHEAP. Findings from interviews suggest that the program’s focus on early employment, combined with the economic opportunities available to refugees within Chicago, contributes to these outcomes.

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