María Cristina García, The Refugee Challenge in Post-Cold War America (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2017).

Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?

MCG: The idea for this book came out of an undergraduate US immigration history course I teach. In this course, I reserve several weeks for a discussion of refugee and asylum policy. Unfortunately, the historical scholarship, rich as it is, focuses almost entirely on the 1948-1989 period. To discuss the post-1989 period, I am forced to assign sociological work and policy reports, as more comprehensive historical scholarship on this period is scant. I wrote The Refugee Challenge in Post-Cold War America to fill this post-1989 gap. I wrote it, in part, for my students, but I also hoped the book would explain US refugee policy to a general audience confused by the immigration debates and discourses. Journalists, clergy, and immigration advocates use the term “refugee” quite freely when discussing people of humanitarian concern, but the term has a more precise meaning in US law, and this legal meaning limits those eligible for resettlement in the United States. We may call someone a “refugee,” but that does not mean the US government will grant this person refuge.

J:  What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?

MCG: I examine how US refugee and asylum policy has shifted in response to a wide range of humanitarian crises abroad and domestic pressures at home. I begin the book with a brief discussion of the Cold War period. For over forty years, from the end of World War Two to the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Cold War provided the ideological lens through which the United States defined refugee status. Our refugees came from the Soviet Union, Vietnam, and Cuba, as well as from the Eastern bloc, the People’s Republic of China, Laos, and other countries in Southeast Asia. Coming from a communist country did not guarantee one admission, but it did maximize one’s chances of admission since U.S. government officials operated on the premise that communist governments were inherently oppressive.

In the post-Cold War era, and especially the post-9/11 period, the war on terrorism has become a new ideological lens through which officials interpret who is worthy of admission. However, a wide range of geopolitical and domestic interests, and an equally wide range of actors, now influence who the government prioritizes for admission as refugees and asylees. The book’s four chapters examine how governmental and non-governmental actors responded to the humanitarian challenges of the post-Cold war era.

Chapter One looks at the transitional 1990s. As the Soviet Union and Eastern bloc countries instituted economic and pro-democratic reforms, US policymakers expressed concerns that refugee (and parole) policy might be poaching the future leaders of these fragile states. Congress and the White House struggled to establish a coherent refugee policy for the post-Cold War era. A new set of domestic actors emerged to try to influence policy, advocating and lobbying on behalf of particular populations whose rights they felt had been ignored. The case studies in this chapter—the Soviet refuseniks, the Chinese university students, the Haitian and Cuban boat people—illustrate the changing political landscape both abroad and at home.

Chapter Two examines the uneven responses to populations displaced by genocide in Iraq, Rwanda, Bosnia, and Kosovo. These case studies show how perceptions of the refugees’ politics, ethnicity, race, and overall “worthiness” increasingly influenced decisions about intervention, humanitarian aid, and the allocation of refugee visas. Chapter Three discusses the changes to the refugee and asylum bureaucracy after the 1993 and 2001 World Trade Center bombings, and evaluates the consequences of that restructuring for Iraqis, Afghans, and Syrians, in particular. Asylum is the subject of Chapter Four. I look at some of the asylum cases heard by the courts to show the complex legal world asylum seekers navigate, often without the benefit of counsel or even translators. Many of today’s asylum seekers fall outside the defined categories of persecution, and their struggles to secure asylum raise important ethical and moral questions about who is deserving of protection.

The book went to press shortly after Donald J. Trump was elected, so the conclusion offers some preliminary thoughts about the future of refugee resettlement as a humanitarian tradition. Long before Trump’s election, sympathy towards refugees (and immigrants more broadly) had begun to dissipate. The Trump campaign capitalized on those attitudes, and he has fulfilled his promise to reduce refuge quotas and block entry of people from certain parts of the world. What I find especially disturbing is the relatively little pushback from members of Congress.

J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?

MCG:  All my scholarship focuses on some aspect of refugee/parole/asylum policy, but most of it has focused on the Cold war period. My first book, a more traditional study based on my doctoral dissertation, is Havana USA: Cuban Exiles and Cuban Americans in South Florida. The book examines US responses toward those fleeing Castro’s Cuba. The Cubans who arrived after the Castro Revolution became a powerful economic and political presence in south Florida, influencing foreign policy and electoral outcomes, and reshaping the cultural landscape of the South. I tried to explain how these changes happened and why Cubans occupied such a privileged position in US immigration policy.

Central American migration, the subject of my second book, provides a dramatic contrast to the Cuban case study. The US government never rolled out the proverbial red carpet for Salvadorans, Guatemalans, and Nicaraguans. Indeed, fewer than five percent of Salvadorans and Guatemalan asylum seekers were successful in their asylum petitions during the 1980s. The book, Seeking Refuge: Central American Migration to Mexico, the United States, and Canada, examines the individuals, groups, and organizations that responded to the Central American refugee crisis of the 1980s and 1990s, and helped shape refugee policies throughout North America. Collectively these domestic and transnational advocacy networks collected testimonies, documented the abuses of states, re-framed national debates about immigration, pressured for changes in policy, and ultimately provided a voice for the displaced and the excluded.

J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?

MCG: It is easy to feel disheartened by the anti-immigrant/anti-refugee sentiment in this current historical moment. I hope the book will remind people of conscience of the power of advocacy to bring about change. The historical examples in this book show that even when elected officials lacked the political will to create a humane refugee policy, engaged citizens found creative and compelling ways to shape policy.

J: What other projects are you working on now?

MCG: I am revising a draft of a new book on climate change migration from Latin America (the so-called “climate refugees”). Many of today’s refugee populations are first displaced by an extreme weather event or environmental disruption of some sort that forces them to migrate, usually internally within their own countries. This internal migration can exacerbate domestic tensions and heighten civil unrest, war, or sectarian violence, forcing populations to migrate a second or third time. If they cross international borders and demonstrate persecution, they might qualify for refugee status and refugee resettlement in a third country like the United States, but the original cause of their displacement is environmental and often obscured in the data. Accelerated climate change is one of the major drivers of internal migration today, but people migrate across borders because of the failures of states. This project looks primarily at Latin America and the Caribbean, and it was completed thanks to a fellowship from the Andrew Carnegie Fellows program.

J:  How has refugee policy changed since Donald J. Trump was elected president, and how have Muslim refugees been affected?

MCG: Shortly after the inauguration, the Trump administration put a freeze on refugee admissions for Fiscal Year (FY) 2017 pending a review of U.S. refugee policy. Trump subsequently reduced Obama’s numbers for FY 2017 (the “presidential determination”) by more than half, from 110,000 to 50,000. The refugee quota for FY 2018 dropped to 45,000 but the actual number admitted was even lower—22,491 refugees. The proposed presidential determination for FY 2019 is 30,000, the smallest quota since the 1980 Refugee Act was passed, but we can expect fewer than that. Administration officials have said that the 30,000 is not a goal to be reached but rather a maximum to be tolerated.

Since 9/11, the vetting of refugees has been rigorous, taking on average eighteen to twenty-four months; but the Trump administration has intensified this process further, making it almost impossible for refugees to clear the security hurdles. Muslim refugees are the most affected by these policy changes, especially those coming from Libya, Syria, Yemen, Iran, and Somalia, the countries subject to Trump’s “Muslim Ban.” By May 2018, only seventeen percent of the refugees admitted to the United States were Muslim, down from forty-three percent the previous year (and forty-six percent in 2016). By the end of FY 2018, the United States had admitted only one refugee from Libya, two from Yemen, forty-one Iranians, sixty-two Syrians, and 257 Somalians. The U.S. Supreme Court upheld Trump’s revised travel ban in June 2018, which means that the number of Muslim refugees will be smaller. Since nationals from these countries are also prevented from traveling to the United States, they are also unable to ask for asylum.

The United States has long been a top refugee resettlement nation. The reduction in refugee admissions, and the plans to reduce U.S. financial contributions to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), tell us that Trump is forfeiting this leadership role and punting responsibility.


Excerpt from the Book:

pp. 143-146, 150-151

By 2008, the UNHCR estimated that nearly 4.7 million Iraqis were displaced from their homes: 2.7 million were internally displaced within Iraq, and 2 million had fled the country. Antonio Guterres, the United Nations high commissioner for refugees, declared the Iraqi exodus the largest population shift in the Middle East since the displacement of the Palestinians in 1948. Only a decade earlier, hundreds of thousands had fled Iraq because of the 1991 Gulf War and Hussein’s brutal repression of the Kurds and the Shiites. The removal of the Saddam Hussein regime had presented these exiles with the opportunity to return to their country once again, but that hope proved short-lived. The sectarian violence that erupted in the wake of the 2003 invasion—and the failure of coalition forces to address it—once again uprooted those who had returned home. According to the UNHCR and other NGOs working in the region, the first to flee Iraq were the affluent and skilled classes, who could pay for their transportation and travel documents, bribe border guards, and hire smugglers. With each passing year, those who fled were poorer and traveled on foot. Ethnic and religious minorities were also among the more likely to flee abroad: almost 40 percent of UNHCR-registered refugees were Christians. Those internally displaced moved in with family members around the country or stayed in abandoned buildings or in the makeshift camps set up by the Iraqi Red Crescent Society. Internal displacement contributed to the sectarian tensions by creating populations of poor, desperate people who competed for limited resources. Overwhelmed by the refugee crises in Afghanistan and other parts of the world, the UNHCR convened an international conference in Geneva in 2007 to try to rally financial support from the international community. Despite pledges of support, international aid was slow in coming in large part because of the perception that Iraq was an American problem.

As in other refugee crises, neighboring countries bore the burden of accommodating the refugees. Syria, Jordan, and Lebanon were reluctant hosts to the Iraqi refugees even though they were not signatories to the 1951 UN Convention or 1967 Protocol on Refugees, had no domestic refugee legislation, and could not guarantee any legal protections or financial assistance. Fearing that the Iraqis would become a permanent population like the Palestinians, all three countries militarized their borders and changed their visa requirements to make it more difficult for the refugees to establish authorized residence. Unauthorized migration continued, however. By 2007 an estimated 750,000 Iraqis were living in Jordan; and up to 1.7 million had crossed the border into Syria. Tens of thousands more had taken refuge in Egypt, Iran, and Turkey. Many disappeared into the populations of large urban areas, making it difficult for international aid agencies to identify and assist them. In cities like Amman and Damascus, the refugees encountered discrimination in housing, education, medical care, and social services. Because of their lack of legal status, they were forced to work in the underground economy, where they were easily exploited and threatened with deportation if they complained. Trafficking, sexual exploitation, prostitution, and domestic violence became an increasingly normal part of life in some refugee communities.

By 2008, the UNHCR had over three hundred staff working in the field trying to identify the most vulnerable, and refer them to third countries like the United States. On the UNHCR’s list of “most vulnerable” were victims of severe trauma or torture; women and older persons at risk of trafficking, neglect, or violence; those with medical conditions and disabilities who could not access treatment; unaccompanied or separated children; stateless persons; and members of ethnic or religious minority groups. The UNHCR was especially helpful in screening applicants from Syria, where the Assad government had barred American officials from entering. In addition to these vulnerable populations, the United States prioritized for potential admission the embassy personnel, translators, and technicians who had assisted the United States during the war. Iraqis who were members of a persecuted religious (especially Christian) or ethnic minority group and who had close family members in the United States also received priority screening.

Despite these efforts, Iraqi refugee admissions were shockingly low. Sixty-six Iraqis were admitted in FY2004 and 198 in FY2005. By May 2007, only 701 Iraqi refugees had been admitted to the United States despite the thousands of applications and referrals. Christian minorities filed 62 percent of the applications.  The Bush administration attributed the low numbers to the enhanced security screening. John Bolton, US ambassador to the United Nations, was more blunt in his explanation, raising questions about the administration’s commitment to refugee resettlement. The refugees had “absolutely nothing to do with our overthrow of Saddam,” he said. “Our obligation was to give them new institutions and provide security. We have fulfilled that obligation. I don’t think we have an obligation to compensate for the hardships of war.


As American opposition to the Iraqi war grew, public and congressional criticism of Bush’s handling of the refugee crisis also increased. Representatives of twenty-one refugee advocacy groups signed a letter castigating the president for his lack of leadership. A widely publicized report from the Migration Policy Institute called US responses to the humanitarian crisis “wholly inadequate.” New advocacy groups emerged, such as the List Project and the Iraqi Refugee Assistance Project, which worked to secure pro bono legal representation for the Iraqi allies. “All of us understand that 9/11 changed a lot of things,” said Representative Gary L. Ackerman at a March 2008 congressional hearing on Iraqi refugees, “and one of those things is that the United States needed to be much more careful about who gets into our country . . . [but] the only person in the executive branch who can make all the agencies march in the same direction is the President, yet I can’t remember President Bush speaking about the refugee crisis or the need of the United States to respond aggressively to it, except in passing.”

In April 2008, the Senate published its own fact-finding report on the humanitarian crisis in Iraq, giving a detailed account of the poverty, harassment, and exploitation of Iraqi refugees, and the “excruciating delays” for those in the application pipeline. In response to the report, eighty-nine members of Congress signed a letter urging the president to take a more proactive role in humanitarian assistance:

Rarely does confronting a crisis align our moral and national security interests as closely as does providing assistance to the Iraqis displaced by violence. There are few more important tests of our foreign policy than our leadership in response to the growing crisis confronting the displaced population of Iraq.

Senators Edward Kennedy and Joe Biden were harsher in their criticism:

[The] findings suggest a startling lack of American leadership in a crisis that much of the international community considers a result of our intervention in Iraq. Acknowledging that the war in Iraq has resulted in one of the greatest humanitarian crises of the post–Cold War era is a bitter pill to swallow. Ensuring that this refugee population receives the humanitarian treatment and dignity that it deserves requires American leadership of a kind not seen to this point.

Over the next few years, the number of Iraqis who entered the United States as refugees increased steadily. In FY2007, only 1,608 of the 12,000 Iraqi refugee referrals had gained entry, but by 2009, the number had jumped to 18,838. By 2013, 84,902 of the 203,321 Iraqi referrals had been admitted.

SIV processing, evaluated separately, occurred much more slowly….