Constructing Clean Cases: A Social Organizational Perspective on Refugee Selection

Jake Watson, University of Chicago

Resettlement is a highly valuable and yet scarce humanitarian resource provided to one percent of refugees each year. But how are refugees selected? Surprisingly, we do not have an adequate answer to this question. Sociological scholarship, however, suggests that refugees will be selected on the basis of two criteria: humanitarian values or national interests. Drawing on expert interviews, analysis of government debates, and descriptive statistics covering refugees resettled between 2002 and 2017, this paper examines these hypotheses through a study of the US program. Ultimately, I find that resettlement is characterized by distributional imbalances that cannot be explained by the underlying “needs” of the global refugee population or likely measures of US interests. To develop an alternative account, this paper draws attention to meso-level organizational factors and the socially-generative effects of measures and evaluations. Specifically, I show that a push to resettle refugees based on individual needs following the end of the Cold War conflicted with the social organization of resettling refugees in practice. The result was declining admissions and concerns about the long-term viability of the US system. Stakeholders therefore became increasingly focused on numbers and quotas, leading practitioners to build a reformed system of selection based on the administrative construction of “clean cases.” These are cases that can be identified and processed abroad in efficient and predictable ways to meet annual admission demands under complex constraints. While this system has allowed for the resettlement of over a million refugees over the past twenty years, it also undermines ideals of distributional equality and “rescue” that underpin official discourses of resettlement and its value as an instrument of refugee protection. Critically, however, these departures from humanitarian ideals stem from the transnational social system of constructing clean cases rather than the pre-existent interests of the state or inherent characteristics of refugees.

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 Presented in Session 162. Logics of Rescue and the Illogics of Refugee Policies