The Risk of Residential Segregation of Refugees

By Nayla Rush on April 5, 2016

A new bill was introduced into the House Judiciary Committee last month with specific recommendations to change the U.S. refugee resettlement program. The "Refugee Program Integrity Restoration Act of 2016" (H.R. 4731) is worthy of review even if its chances of passing are very slim. My colleague Dan Cadman shared his thorough critique in a comprehensive overview.

There is one point in need of further consideration. On the "Limitation on resettlement" in Section 9, the bill requires the following amendment to Section 412 of the Immigration and Nationality Act (8 U.S.C. 1522):

Notwithstanding any other provision of this section, for a fiscal year, the resettlement of any refugee may not be provided for—
(1) in any State where the Governor of that State, or the State legislature, has taken any action formally disapproving of resettlement in that State; or
(2) in any locality where the chief executive of that locality's government, or the local legislature, has taken any action formally disapproving of resettlement in that locality.

In simple terms, this bill will give power to state and local governments to say no to refugees being resettled within their states. (The bill was amended in committee to allow that refusal to take place through voter referendum, as well.) Federal agencies, for now, are only required to "consult regularly with State and local governments and private nonprofit voluntary agencies concerning the sponsorship process and the intended distribution of refugees among the States and localities before their placement in those States and localities."

In principle, the bill's provision allowing for state or local refusal is understandable; these governments should be able to say no to refugees being resettled in their localities. Their concerns may vary from limited housing space, job offers, classroom resources etc. to social integration and security issues.

This amendment, however, may not be in the best public interest. First, and from a practical reason, let us not forget that a refugee is required to apply for a green card one year after admission. Green card holders (or legal permanent residents) can – it goes without saying – live in any state without the prior knowledge or approval of authorities. Granted, this provision could act as an initial (and perhaps permanent) deterrent of residence choice.

Second, to accept refugees in only a limited number of states can be risky, as it may lead to greater residential segregation. As much as networking and welcoming attitudes are central to a successful migration experience, ghettoization can be negative; and that ghettoization could be exacerbated if refugees were to be resettled in a shrinking number of states and towns, as others exercised the veto power foreseen in this bill and refused to accept resettlement.

We highlighted in a previous post refugees' difficulties to integrate when sent into localities that had little experience with diversity or refugee resettlement. Refugees need mentors and translators to help them get accustomed to new institutional cultures. Strong peer networks are also crucial for emotional support for those who are already traumatized and vulnerable. Resettling in hostile communities will most probably lead to failed integration, not to mention added frustration for all (hosts and guests).

So yes, networks are important, they provide familiar outlooks, common culture, and much needed support for new arrivals. The nine voluntary agencies or "volags" that work closely with the U.S. Department Office of Refugee Resettlement know that, as they tend to resettle nationals of similar cultural backgrounds, religious faiths, and language into specific localities. Practical reasons are also at work here, since available resources, trained employees, and hired translators are already on the ground.

However, these "regroupings," if continuous and further limited in space (by, for instance, local vetoes that funnel refugees into a small number of communities), can backfire.

John Iceland, Professor of Sociology and Demography at the Pennsylvania State University, noted, in a report on residential segregation that "the concentration of ethnic, national origin, or socioeconomic groups in particular neighborhoods of a city or metropolitan area is widely perceived as the antithesis as successful immigrant integration" and "tends to be problematic if it is associated with overlapping inequalities that persist across generations." In such cases, feelings of social distance and alienation are reinforced especially among later generations.

Residential concentration of immigrants can, therefore, lead to social isolation, unrest, riots, and in extreme cases, to radicalization. One only has to look across the Atlantic for vivid examples.

We have all heard of Molenbeek, the neighborhood in Brussels recently famous for being a jihadi hideaway. The French Minister of the Urban Affairs noted that there were a hundred or so neighborhoods in France that could be Molenbeek.

Samia Ghali, French Socialist Senator and Mayor of the 15th and 16th arrondissements of Marseille – a city in South of France with a large population of immigrant descent mainly from Algeria – complained about training camps inside Marseille's neighborhoods where people practiced shooting. She asked for help from the government to disarm these areas and added: "After all, we are in France, in the 21st century and I am asking for a wall to be built in a school so that bullets from Kalashnikovs or guns do not reach the playground."

Not wanting refugees inside one's state or city can be understood in a period of particular tensions and threats. But public officials need to look at the bigger picture. While resettling fewer refugees may be called for, limiting the states and cities where they may go can increase their ghettoization, leading to isolation, resentment, and in extreme cases, radicalism. In such cases, the whole country could be affected beyond repair.