America’s humanitarian resettlement program has shifted radically since its beginning in the years following the Second World War. Post-WW2, America’s resettlement program aligned with its political posturing. The nation wanted to squash other countries with democratically challenging ideologies through a series of schemes. One was building up America’s humanitarian image; in the mid-twentieth century, the US prioritised refugee resettlement for people from the USSR, Latin America, and Vietnam (T, 2020). This move was a “powerful symbol of Western superiority over communism” and a schematic foreign policy campaign disguised as humanitarian (T, 2020). However, public and political opinions soon shifted after a series of international events in the 1990s. September 11, 2001, was the catalyst that cemented America’s new stance: the foreigner is to be feared. Trump’s “wall” only symbolised a divide that this nation had been carving between itself, and others, for years. The Trump presidency resurrected polarising political ideas that have existed since the downfall of America’s previously empathetic immigration programs. The dialogue revived mostly circulates around undocumented immigrants, and refugees – whatever shall be done about the hordes of people swarming onto American soil and taking (the albeit menial and unwanted) jobs? 

Undocumented Immigrants:

‘Undocumented’ is a political status that refers to the lack of legality these people have. When someone comes into America and overstays a visa, they then live outside of usual social safety nets: no social security, no access to welfare, and no subsidised healthcare. Because of the lack of social identification, undocumented immigrants in America mainly occupy risky labour markets. A study conducted by the Pew Research Centre found that 77% of American adults say “undocumented immigrants fill positions that Americans do not want” (Krogstad J, 2020). In light of Covid-19 and its devastating effects on the job market, Pew Research Centre found that 84% of undocumented immigrants held jobs that would be affected and lost by Covid-19 restrictions (Krogstad J, 2020). Despite this, a majority of American’s say the government has no responsibility to provide economic relief for undocumented immigrants (Krogstad J, 2020). The discrimination faced by the host country is only one of many barriers that prevent undocumented immigrants from feeling truly safe within America. 

Another barrier is the theme of union avoidance that has become common within industries dominated by immigrants. An article in Dissent Magazine highlights the beginning of this strong de-unionisation. In the 1980s, a recession meant employers resorted to desperate measures. These included extending the portions of businesses that were not affiliated with a union presence and distancing themselves from obligations to wages or employees (Milkman, 2019). Any citizens who could move freely and with loyalty to trade unions left these increasingly risky unions. It is well recorded that immigrants – documented and undocumented – only entered low-wage jobs in high numbers after this breakdown between unionised and de-unionised environments (Milkman, 2019). “The employment of immigrants did not cause the labour degradation in the industry; on the contrary, it resulted from the employer’s anti-union campaigns (Milkman, 2019).” The flooding of these “bottom tier” positions in the labour market symbolise the lack of choice held by immigrants within  America (Milkman, 2019).

Refugees in America:

These experiences of job precarity are not isolated to just undocumented immigrants. Refugees who resettle in America are pushed into similar labour markets. A comparative study conducted in 2012  finds that immigrants are four times more likely to enjoy their job than refugees (Jamil H, 2012). This difference is because immigrants are more likely to secure a position based upon their qualifications and pre-emigration experience (Jamil H, 2012). Only 1 in 160 refugees analysed could find a job that was similar to their pre-resettlement profession (Jamil H, 2012). 

Studies show there is a vast difference in settlement and assimilation experience between different categories of migrants. Unsurprisingly, there is also a significant difference between refugees who are settled at different ages. Before the age of fourteen, people who were resettled in America have similar education rates and join the labour market simultaneously as US citizens. People who are resettled after this age have increasingly lower rates of graduation and labour market assimilation. So what creates these statistics? Refugees often imagine resettlement to the USA as a solution to their problems. However, the process of resettlement is full of social, cultural, and economic hurdles that need to be contented with before gaining a job. These include: 

 – language barriers

 – no social or professional connections

 – mental health or physical problems associated with the refugee experience

 – cultural differences

 – being ill-prepared for the isolation of the settlement experience. 

These personal difficulties certainly help push refugees into unregulated and low-wage job markets.  However, market pressures also encourage this push. In an ethnographic report, researcher Kamryn Warren analyses job agencies for refugees (2020). She finds that people working within these agencies have quotas to fill and are immobilised by market obligations. To maintain their position within the company, caseworkers fast-track refugees into these unstable labour positions (K, 2020).

In a revealing moment, Warren’s report focuses on Mary: an employment specialist with America for Refugees. Her contract states that she has to find employment for at least 75% of her clients within 90 days. Her caseload of clients is 400. These overly efficient systems mean that her clients are often down-skilled into positions rather than being found suitable and personalised jobs (K, 2020). One of the refugees who found work with the job agency got fired without notice two weeks later (K, 2020). The cyclical nature of the insecure work that refugees are pushed into does not inspire trust between resettled refugees and job agencies. This insecure work also does not provide a sustainable living situation (K, 2020). It only allows day-to-day survival– a problem refugees have lived in ever since fleeing their homes. 


Ultimately, these temp agency practices and the more significant market pressures violate the economic rights of refugees. Denying undocumented migrants and refugees the pursual of their economic freedoms is a human rights violation (K, 2020). There is no government protection against third-party labour exploitation and less and less union presence to prevent this. The chronic underemployment of refugees and undocumented workers is assumed to be an autonomous decision made by them. The deregulation of these markets is said to be a consequence caused by them. However, the restrictive and over-exploited labour market of America has coupled with the increasing suspicion of minorities. The result is a lack of legal and economic protections that leaves people chasing a new life, with no choices.


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