The Time Politics of Higher Education for Refugees in the United States

Resettlement should not be only about a fast track to full-time employment. We can better support the flourishing of those we welcome to our communities.

College education for refugees in the United States, as one resettlement provider explained, “[is] really hard. There are a lot of challenges. So I would say that for adults the reality is, you need to work.”​ There is an assumption among some refugee resettlement service providers and scholars that the obstacles that adult refugees face in the United States are so high and so numerous that the goal of attaining higher education is impractical. But, the fact is that many refugees come to the United States with a goal of going to college and manage to achieve that goal despite the obstacles they face. A college education strengthens the social and economic prospects of individual refugees and benefits refugee resettlement communities more generally , for example, by socializing refugees with skills and knowledge that may be valuable in rebuilding a community and managing the relationship between their community and political, educational, medical, and social service institutions.

Our ongoing research into the sociocultural and institutional factors that inform refugee resettlement and higher education for refugees in Wisconsin suggests that the policy framework of the US Refugee Resettlement Program itself, and in particular the way in which time is paced and regimented, effectively thwarts and complicates the possibilities of high education for refugees.

Policy as power in the US refugee resettlement regime

The current refugee resettlement policy regime was established by the Refugee Act of 1980, which defined the scope of the term “refugee,” created a procedure for delimiting the annual number of refugees resettled in the United States, coordinated the government agencies and resettlement organizations to conduct resettlement, and made provisions for the financial, medical, and social services available to refugees. This policy context produces a mechanism of power that can be characterized as a form of time politics—the political regimentation of the rhythms and conceptualization of time—by which the federal government manages (and curtails) refugee resettlement goals and practices. The two time political processes employed to enact policy control are regimentation of the rate of resettlement, by speeding and slowing different aspects of the process, and regimentation of the rhythm of resettlement, by setting time benchmarks, sequences, and limits on the process. We have found that this mechanism constrains the work of refugee resettlement service providers and educators to support higher education for refugees, and effectively frustrates the college attainment goals of refugees in Wisconsin.

“Slowing the flow”

Saulo Cwerner (2004) has documented how the United Kingdom deployed a time politics of speed to control the border by expediting the asylum adjudication process, causing bureaucratic and legal challenges for asylum seekers that lead to the denial of applications at historically high levels. The US government and the Trump administration in particular, is employing a time politics of sloth to protract and obstruct the vetting and placement process—what a number of refugee resettlement service providers and advocates have described as “slowing the flow” of refugees to the United States. The Patriot Act of 2001 considerably protracted this process, with successful applicants waiting two years or more (Kerwin 2015). More recently, the Trump administration has dramatically reduced the capacity of the Refugee Resettlement Program by slashing its budget and slowing the process through a policy of increased scrutiny of refugees called “extreme vetting.” For the 2017–2018 fiscal year, the Trump administration dropped the ceiling for the number refugees from 45,000 refugees to its historic low of 30,000. But, as low as these numbers are, the US State Department reported that only 20,918 refugees were resettled in 2017; a number that is well below even the number resettled in the two years following the attacks of September 11. This time politics of sloth designed to diminish the program and its capacity to resettle refugees is perpetuated as the president has repeatedly ordered Secretary of State Michael Pompeo to increase the “already extreme vetting” process.

The consequence of this time politics is to “slow the new arrivals to a trickle,” as one refugee advocate explained; and in fact, the total refugee intake in Wisconsin for the 2016–2017 fiscal year was 1,003—a decrease of more than a third from the prior year. Resettlement workers and advocates rely on networks with community members, employers, educators, credentialing specialists, and city, county, and state social services providers to support the resettlement and flourishing of refugees in Wisconsin communities. There is a widespread concern that these networks, cultivated over many years, are beginning to atrophy. As one long time veteran resettlement coordinator explained, “First they stop the refugees, and that’s how they break the networks.” The largest resettlement organization in Wisconsin, Catholic Social Services in Milwaukee, concluded its resettlement program in the summer of 2018 on account of the decline in new arrivals.

“Rapid self-sufficiency” as a refugee “success story”

The resettlement regime also uses a time politics of speed to manage and delimit resettlement. The chief consequence of this time politics is to discourage and obstruct higher education for refugees by directing them towards rapid—and often low-quality—employment after resettlement. This narrow goal and definition of “self-sufficiency” is common throughout refugee resettlement policy discourse. For example, in a policy report issued to former Wisconsin Governor Jim Doyle to plan for the last group of Hmong refugees in the state in 2004–2005, the members of the Hmong Resettlement Task Force argued (2005, 7–9; emphasis added): ​

It is [Wisconsin’s] spirit of community and high quality, culturally competent services that help Hmong who currently live here to rapidly achieve success. We insist that these new families will soon join their relatives in enriching Wisconsin cultural and economic fabric.

… implementing the following recommendations [for educational supports] will help these new refugees obtain rapid self-sufficiency.

The paramount and singular goal of refugee resettlement in the United States is to “obtain rapid self-sufficiency,” as measured by employment and transition off state sponsored social services. One refugee resettlement services provider explained how this definition of the goal of resettlement delimits the possibility of higher education for refugees by imposing a regimentation of the time benchmarks and the rhythms of refugee resettlement:   

And the goal of resettlement is always, as the government would say, self-sufficiency. So, when people say “I want to study,” that’s not what the expectation of resettlement is. If you get W-2 [Wisconsin’s “welfare to work” program] because you have dependent children, that’s a 60-month program. The goal is always employment and self-sufficiency. But if you are—if you don’t have dependent children, you’re under something called Refugee Cash Assistance. That only lasts eight months after you arrive. So, you are expected to get a job as soon as possible and after eight months you—the government is no longer helping you. So, people say, “Well, I want to study,” and it’s like you have to say “It’s my job to inform you that you have to get a job because the government’s only going to help you for a small amount of time until you get a job.” And that sometimes is very demoralizing for people, that they had a lot of hopes and dreams of opportunity here, and the first thing you have to tell them is “Sorry, the goal of you being here is to get a job first thing. It’s not to go to school, it’s not to get a degree.” 

College takes time. For refugees who persist in pursuit of a college education, it often takes several years of hard work to even start the process. While discussing the “success story” of one Iraqi refugee, who was able to learn English, finish high school, and begin studying at the local technical college, his resettlement service provider explained, “It takes time and a lot of work. That family has been here for three or four years now. But he’s doing pretty good now. He just started going to school; he is doing pretty good.” Refugees who are navigating the challenges and obstacles of lives in new communities are rarely able to follow the American, white, middle-class norm of a linear full-time progression through college, from application to enrollment to years of study to graduation and on to professional employment.

And yet, refugee resettlement timelines are highly structured and time-delimited, with many and various meetings, applications, and procedures that must be completed within the first 90 days after resettlement. After this time, refugees transition to public service programs, which diminish over time and are often contingent upon the refugee pursuing full-ti­­­­­­­­me employment. Such benefits end on employment and the determination of “self-sufficiency.” In this resettlement framework, success is characterized by the speed with which refugees transition off social services, “you are expected to get a job as soon as possible,” “to get a job first thing,” which prohibits serious consideration of higher education.

While resettlement service providers and educators work hard to support the college attainment of refugees in our communities, our research finds that the time politics of resettlement effectively obstructs this process for many refugees.

Time to consider higher education for refugees

During this period of high nativist nationalism and reduced refugee admission, Wisconsin’s refugee resettlement providers and educators are focused on supporting the refugees who are currently in our communities, as well as the few that are arriving, by maintaining the institutional knowledge and community networks necessary to support refugee resettlement. We should use this time to plan for a refugee resettlement process that can help realize a more open society: one that can support the flourishing of those we welcome to our communities. A renewed focus on restructuring the resettlement process to include the time and supports for refugees to access and succeed in college can make higher education for refugees a reality.

To learn more about the AAA’s World on the Move initiative visit understandingmigration.org.

Matthew Wolfgram is an anthropologist of education and senior researcher at the Center for College Workforce Transitions at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Isabella Vang is an undergraduate research assistant at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. They are authors of the report, “Documenting Higher Education for Refugees in Wisconsin.”

Cite as: Wolfgram, Matthew, and Isabella Vang. 2019. “The Time Politics of Higher Education for Refugees in the United States.” Anthropology News website, June 3, 2019. DOI: 10.1111/AN.1180

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