Refuge Seeking in North America

By Jakob Kelly, Oxana Pilenko, and Chitta Chowdhury

Roksana Hajrizi camping across from the Prime Minister’s Office in an effort to speak to Justin Trudeau about her family’s refugee situation.

The Political Stakes of Refuge-Seeking: Overcoming Polarization and Complexity

The United States

Historical Background

         Migration and refuge-seeking has long been an important topic in American politics. From the beginnings of the republic, important political figures reflected on migration and asylum. In his pamphlet, “Common Sense,” Thomas Paine wrote “Europe, and not England, is the parent country of America. This new world hath been the asylum for the persecuted lovers of civil and religious liberty from every part of Europe” (“U.S. Immigration Timeline”). Not only did questions of refuge and citizenship quickly enter U.S. politics, they also became divisive issues. Founded in 1849, the “Know Nothing” Party sought “to reduce, indeed to obliterate the political influence of Catholics and foreigners” (Holt, p. 845). There has never truly been a national consensus on migration; while political formations such as the Know Nothings argued against hosting migrants, companies relying on migrants for their workforces pushed for legalized immigration through the Contract Labor Law of 1865. Such laws were opposed, however, by cohorts of workers who believed, as Howard Zinn writes, that these laws “gave the employers during the Civil war not only very cheap labor, but strikebreakers” (Zinn, p. 238). 

In discourse, however, the political stakes of migrants were about more than just an economic question and were also a question of race and culture. In 1854, for example, a California Supreme Court justice refused to accept the testimony of a Chinese man on the grounds that the Chinese formed “a race of people whom nature has marked as inferior” (“People v. Hall,” 1854). The national census played a role in laying the prerequisites for the racialization of migration, with the 1850 census being the first to identify the places of birth of the foreign-born (Ngai, p. 71). Census data on national origins allowed for the Immigration Act of 1924 to create a quota for the number of migrants admitted from various countries (Ngai, p. 67). From early on, refuge-seeking has proven to be both a polarizing and complex issue. 

1980s-Today: Polarization and Securitization

By the 1990s, refuge-seeking took on greater political stakes as the volume of migrants from countries such as Mexico increased. From 760 000 in 1960 to 2.2 million in 1980, the number of American residents born in Mexico almost tripled (Cohen, p. 3). The U.S.-Mexico border has been at the centre of discussions around asylum, with the U.S. government recently cutting the refugee cap to 18,000 on the basis of “the increase in the number of asylum seekers trying to enter the United States at the Mexican border” (Shear and Kanno-Youngs). 

Polarization and a lack of unanimity continues to affect the political stakes around asylum-seekers at the U.S. Mexico border. As Tichenor and Rosenblum write, the strategies of Bill Clinton and George W. Bush for dealing with immigration “were markedly different” (p. 616). Similarly, polarization is evident, with recent polls identifying 55 percent of Republican voters as nativists and 3 percent of Democrats as nativists (Kefford, Glenn and Shaun Ratcliff).  

The political stakes around refuge-seeking have also evolved. A search of Donald Trump’s Twitter reveals the perceived links between migration and economics. During the 2016 campaign, for example, he tweeted, “On immigration, I’m consulting with our immigration officers & our wage-earners. Hillary Clinton is consulting with Wall Street” (Yates, p. 83). Whereas refuge-hosting was heavily shaped by geopolitics during the Cold War, the issue of domestic security has risen as a key political stake around migration since the 9/11 attacks. During the 2016 election campaign, as Heather Yates writes, Trump framed migration concerns “as a domestic security issue that only he could resolve” (p. 84). Finally, refuge-seeking is not only an economic question for the U.S. as a host country, but also affects the home countries of those seeking asylum at its border. El Salvador, for example, relies on remittances from the over 2.3 million Salvadorans living in the United States (O’Toole). 

For these reasons, immigration is a “cross-cutting issue in American national politics, which defies the standard liberal-conservative divide” (616).  Likewise, the political stakes of refugee-hosting are multi-faceted, based on a range of geopolitical, economic, social, as well as race- and culture-based concerns.


         Despite being exposed to fewer asylum-seekers at its border., case studies available of refuge-seekers who have arrived at Canada’s borders reveal the lack of unanimity and the complexity of asylum-seeking in Canadian politics.

Firstly, the Komagata Maru arrived in Vancouver in 1914 carrying 376 passengers from India (“Komagata Maru”). Irrespective of their motives for seeking entry into Canada, the passengers were denied entry due to the requirement for Asian immigrants to have $200 and the requirement that immigrants arrive by continuous journey from their country of origin (“Komagata Maru”). The stakes around the incident were race-based; whereas immigrants from outside Asia were required to have $25 to immigrate to Canada, Asians (excluding Chinese and Japanese) were required to have 8 times more (“Komagata Maru”). 

         A comparable example occurred in 1986 when 155 Tamils arrived in Newfoundland. After granting minister’s permits to the refugees, Canada’s Immigration Minister stated, “I have no difficulty right now in saying that they will be allowed to stay (whether their story is correct or not). There’s no reason why these people should not be allowed to stay in our country” (Mann, p. 196).  In 2009, however, these asylum-seekers were seen as “economic migrants posing as asylum seekers,” with Canada’s Immigration Minister Jason Kenney arguing that welcoming these Tamil refugees could create a “two-tier immigration system” and (Mann, pp. 199-200). Not only were concerns around these Tamil asylum-seekers economic, concerns of security and race played in political discourse, with Alexandra Mann writing that it is “undeniable that the Ocean Lady passengers were suspected of being security threats because of their ethnicity and country of origin” (Mann, p. 199). As in the U.S., questions of economics, security, and race have dominated the debate around the politics of refuge-hosting in Canada.


The U.S. federal refugee resettlement policies and programs, like admission policy, developed in a reactive way. With its modest beginnings as aid to Cuban and Indochinese refugees, it continued to grow even more with a catchall program for Soviet and other refugees (Zucker, 172). In an attempt to formalize the admission system, the Refugee Act of 1980 was introduced to focus on reintegration of the new refugees into American society by building on already existing public-private partnerships that helped refugees settle and adjust to life in their new country. Over the years, the private nonprofit voluntary agencies became institutionalized as the private sector link between admissions and local resettlement. The partnerships between states and NGOs had existed in parallel with UNHCR’s referral system; when the UNHCR showed a growing lack of capacity to fill the U.S. annual admissions quotas, NGOs like RefugePoint3 were founded with the goal of ensuring that available resettlement quotas were fully utilised, particularly for African cases, which had historically fared poorly compared with other regions (Slaughter, 32). 

The modes of refugee resettlement continue to be funded by the federal government while the services are administered almost entirely by non-governmental organizations (NGOs) with the primary goal of resettlement being to help refugees achieve economic self-sufficiency as quickly as possible (Nawyn, 152). When refugees first enter the United States, one of their first interactions with American institutions is with NGOs administering the refugee resettlement. For example, The Resettlement Support Center (RSC) is run by agencies like the IRC (International Rescue Committee), through cooperative agreements with the U.S. Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration. They help refugees and their families prepare their cases to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), compiling personal data and background information for security clearance. NGO cultural and advocacy activities provide institutional avenues for refugees to resist racial/ethnic and gender subordination in other areas. However, their work has been subjected to criticism from both the government and refugees themselves. For example, NGO employment services frequently channel refugees into the low-skilled, ethnic niche, and feminized jobs, which can support existing gender and racial/ethnic hierarchies in the labour market (Nawyn, 151). As the diasporic communities in the US become better established, refugee-led organizations like mutual assistance associations (MAAs) formed to challenge the dominance of more established refugee resettlement NGOs by arguing that they were better situated to serve their own people (Nawyn, 150).

Resettlement in the U.S. is administered under the same agency that provides other federal social welfare assistance (Department of Health and Human Services Administration for Children and Families). This oftentimes gives the individual states whose political attitudes have historically been hostile to newcomers the power to influence the decisions of NGOs regarding resettlement options, forcing them to act in ways that are “counter to their principles” (Keck) and placing the responsibility of accepting refugees onto other states. Diasporic communities in the United States end up concentrated in states that have historically been home to people of diverse religious and racial backgrounds. Because of this, resettlement of refugees varies depending on individual states within the country, with some states willing to take in large numbers while others settled few to none. For instance, in 2016, over 50% of the refugees admitted to the United States were admitted by only ten states; California, Texas and New York admitted the highest number of refugees while Arkansas and the District of Columbia resettled less than 10 each and Hawaii and Delaware did not admit any refugees at all. While this results in a disproportionate distribution of refugees across the country, many refugees tend to prefer being placed in states where the neighbouring diasporic communities congregate as to ease the burden of adjusting to new ways of life. This has led the states that have been mostly welcoming to options of refugee resettlement to back down from the previous agreements. For example, in recent years, Texas was the first state to reject refugee resettlement as they had taken 10 percent of all refugees in the last decade (Washington Free Beacon).


The construction of a refugee crisis in American and Canadian media has significant political and policy making consequences. Since 2005, Mexico surpassed all other countries in asylum claims in Canada (Gilbert, 2013). Only 10% of Mexican asylum seekers were accepted in contrast to the average 43% for other asylum seekers in 2007 (Gilbert, 2013).  2006-2007 saw an influx of Mexican asylum seekers many of whom arrived through border crossing at Windsor, ON. Asylum seekers were eligible for housing, social assistance, health care and work permits while waiting for the Immigration and Refugee Board’s decision. With the highest unemployment rate in the country, Windsorites and local media saw asylum seekers as a major financial burden. Mexicans were depicted as stealing jobs twice – once for the jobs being ‘sent’ to Mexico and for the jobs here in Canada. Furthering frustrations was the reality that only few of the asylum seekers would be allowed to stay. 

The moral panic around the ‘refugee crisis’ reflected many anti-immigrant narratives in U.S. media and politics, specifically the illegality of and criminality of Mexican refugees as well as the inability of the government to secure borders and enforce immigration law (Gilbert, 2013). Local news pushed narratives of Mexican asylum seekers abusing Canadian generosity. While using the same rhetoric as U.S media and the U.S state, local governments were denouncing U.S. Immigration policy. The mayor of Windsor at the time argued that ‘Windsor’s residents and taxpayers should not have to foot the bill for US immigration policy”(Gilbert, 2013)

The narratives of Mexican immigrants, and the dichotomization of asylum seekers (legal versus illegal) clearly reflected in policy changes that took place at the time. The imposition of Visa on Mexico in 2007 came to surprise both Canada’s public as well as Mexico’s public. On the visa requirement, Jason Kenny (then Minister of Citizenship, immigration, and multiculturalism) stated:

“‘The visa requirement I am announcing today will give us a greater ability to manage the flow of people into Canada and verify bona fides. By taking this important step towards reducing the burden on our refugee system, we will be better equipped to process genuine refugee claims faster’”  (Gilbert, 2013)

A few months after this policy change, Kenney revealed his intentions to overhaul the refugee system altogether and replace it with a country based screening model (Gilbert, 2013). Only refugees from conflict zones and totalitarian regimes would be accepted in the country within this framework (Gilbert, 2013). 

Mann argues that  “[h]uman rights aren’t naturally given … [t]hey are the result of active assertions of rights by persons who have no rights” (Mann, 58). Roksana Hajrizi, a Roma refugee currently living in Ottawa, has publicly stood up for herself and her family who have been threatened with deportation. Fleeing war-torn Yugoslavia, Celina Hajrizi and her husband were smuggled into British Columbia along with three young children. The family has been living in Canada the past 23 years stateless and in precarity. Roksana’s father, Ismet Hajrizi, was deported June, 2019 (Keyes, 2019). The family has since had some contact with him revealing that he  was homeless and now lives in a garage sleeping on rolled up cloth (Keyes, 2019). He has been assaulted twice since his deportation (Keyes, 2019).  

Some members of this group have experience supporting Roksana in her attempt to get status for herself and her family. Roksana, as well as supporters who helped her with her actions, speeches and media representation were very conscious of how she would be perceived by the media and the general public. Certain actions and media outlets were avoided and her speeches appealed to the Canadian public by emphasising her and her family’s Canadian identity as well as her love for Canada. 

In December 2019, Roksana camped out in front of the Prime Minister’s office hoping to be able to speak to Justin Trudeau about her and her family’s situation (Keyes, 2019). She was forced to leave the camp after eight days once she was diagnosed with pneumonia and bronchitis.  Roksana began receiving attention online after multiple public stunts where she interrupted public events at universities and at Ottawa’s city hall speaking about her family and asking for public support. Videos of her have gone viral on social media including on instagram where a video reposted of Roksana on the viral meme page 6ixbuzz has gotten her over 200 000 views. Roksana and her family have garnered the support from a number of activist groups, student groups and politicians. Additionally, the family’s plight has garnered attention from around the world, including India where a rally of over 100 people was held urging the Canadian government to give the Hajrizi family status. Through self advocacy, the Hajirizi family has been able to define their own story and reinforce their claim to refugeedom. Roksana and her sister Camilla are now going through the process of becoming permanent residents. However, their mother Celina is still at risk of being deported. 


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