Resettling Refugees: Social Rights and Incorporation in San Diego, CA and Boise, ID

With more than 25 million refugees globally, we are facing one of the largest forced displacements in history. While most refugees remain in camps and cities in neighboring countries, some eventually gain access to resettlement. Contrary to other immigrants, refugees resettled to the U.S. benefit from immediate inclusion in the U.S. welfare state. They receive refugee-specific services and then quickly transition to general assistance programs that fill in the critical gaps not covered by employment in entry-level jobs.

Institutional factors matter in immigrant incorporation, yet we know little about how programs of relief affect the experience of refugees. Through twelve months of ethnographic fieldwork at a refugee resettlement agency in San Diego, California and Boise, Idaho and 102 interviews with refugees and service providers, I demonstrate how these services shape refugees’ economic and social inclusion. While San Diego and Boise have welcomed similar refugee groups over the past decade, they differ in their state-based approaches to public assistance, racial and ethnic diversity, and histories of welcoming the foreign-born. I find that the very programs of relief intended to support refugees as they settle constrain their choices and subject them to disciplinary measures. By shadowing caseworkers in both cities, I explain the structural factors that produce this outcome. This project makes important scholarly and policy contributions by revealing the impact of social services on refugees' resettlement trajectories.

This research was supported with funding from the National Science Foundation and P.E.O. International.