North American Border: Sanctuary Cities, Self Representation, and Economics

International Worker’s Day, early morning blockade outside ICE headquarters in San Francisco 2017. Photo: Peg Hunter

Important Update

 This past Thursday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced that his government would allow refugee claimants to cross the border and spend 14 days in isolation. Just one day after this announcement, the federal government unexpectedly reversed this policy. The federal government announced yesterday that individuals crossing the border irregularly, including refugee claimants, would not be allowed into Canada and will be returned to the United States (Amnesty, 2020). Organizations like Amnesty International have condemned this change in policy stating that “Canadian government is now violating our important international obligations to refugees, at a time when concern about their vulnerability to COVID-19 mounts worldwide”(Amnesty, 2020). The U.S. has similarly closed its northern and southern borders. Amnesty International has decried the decision to close the US/Mexico border to refugees, highlighting that it will only deepen a grave human rights crisis. Additionally, migrant workers have been thrown under the bus with regards to new border policies regarding COVID-19, stating that Canada would be indefinitely closing its borders to non-residents. In these unprecedented and uncertain times, it is important to consider the precarity refugees, asylum seekers, undocumented people and migrants face – especially in times of emergencies.

Refugee perspectives/stories/agency

Sanctuary history in the U.S.

US sanctuary practices can be described as comprising relatively cohesive, faith-based national movements, in contrast to sanctuary practices outside of the US. For example, sanctuary practices in Canada are not found on a national scale and are more socially and geographically detached and temporally limited incidents. As well, Canadian sanctuary practices are not closely associated with the theological imperative of sanctuary unlike the US movements that are exemplary of religious activism against the state. While most sanctuary movements in the US found origin through Christian churches, supporters were quick to note that concepts of sanctuary exist in most faith traditions. Still, US sanctuary movements are “not founded in ancient theological traditions of hospitality or the Old Testament traditions of cities of refuge; rather, the sanctuary movement is more properly understood in the tradition of civil disobedience” (Lippert and Rehaag, 34). Churches are said to engage in this act of civil disobedience largely because of inadequate appeal procedures and human suffering not addressed by those procedures. Many justifications articulated by supporters in sanctuary movements underscore the moral imperative of their work as “helping the weakest” even if it meant going against state laws as “God’s laws are superior”. The argument for building sanctuaries has been that the refugee system is often unhearing, uncaring, and unaccountable to vulnerable people in need of protection as it is founded in systemic discrimination and racism. Sanctuaries for refugees are therefore an expression of moral outrage at what was deemed a broken refugee system, and outrage at how their government handled deportees. Where the state was perceived to have failed to provide that protection, communities and frequently churches were portrayed as having stepped into this role, and, in doing so, claimed the higher moral ground. 

The first wave of Sanctuary Movement (SM) in the U.S. formed in response to the Refugee Act of 1980 and was primarily concerned with the plight of Central American refugees. During this time, violent wars raged in El Salvador and Guatemala (El Salvador had been engulfed by civil war since 1979, while in Guatemala, 11,000 people were killed in just 1983 alone). While the Act was supposed to be a more just version of the refugee policy already existing in the U.S., it proved to be quite the opposite. While it intended to establish a non-ideological standard for refugee and asylum determination, stating that a refugee was ‘any person’ who was ‘unable or unwilling to return to … that country because of persecution or a well-founded fear of persecution.’ In reality, someone fleeing a country friendly to the U.S. was less likely to gain asylum than someone fleeing an unfriendly country (such as one from the Soviet bloc), even if the harms suffered were the same. This led to refugees from El Salvador and Guatemala fleeing to the U.S. seeking political asylum were routinely rejected and deported. At its best, the Central American Sanctuary Movement is said to have involved over 400 sanctuary spaces that, together with 2000 supporting congregations, provided sanctuary to at least 3000 Central American refugees (Lippert and Rehaag, 31). 

New Sanctuary Movement (NSM) is known as a revival of the SM. It arose in response to the treatment of migrant workers and undocumented migrations from Mexico and South and Central America. Churches in a handful of U.S. cities hoped to unite faith-based groups in a push for immigration reform that would help undocumented migrants stave off deportation orders. This second wave of sanctuary movement was meant to “enable congregations to publicly provide hospitality and protection to a limited number of migrant families whose legal cases clearly reveal the contradictions and moral injustice of our current immigration system”(Lippert and Rehaag, 31). Supporters of sanctuary movements searched border areas for people in distress and also started a programme of setting up water stations in the desert. When asked about the legality of their actions, one leader of the movement stated: 

“ ‘We are doing nothing more than giving humanitarian aid to people in the desert who may be dying or in failing health. These people were in a life-or-death situation. It was a matter of saving lives. If they were caught by Border Patrol and sent back to their country in handcuffs, they were delivered to the death squads’ ” (Lippert and Rehaag, 35). 

For some migrants, sanctuary meant literal refuge – ICE (US Immigration and Customs Enforcement) is usually reluctant to enter churches to execute deportation orders while insisting on its right to do so. For instance, Rosa Ramirez (a pseudonym) and her family in the Kansas City area speak of their encounter with sanctuary being an actual safe haven: ‘I would feel safe in the church, but when I went out to drop off [my son] at work, I can’t describe the fear I felt’ (Lippert and Rehaag, 96). However, NSM went beyond ensuring physical sanctuary and focused more on providing a new means of telling the story of the human costs of US deportation policies. Undocumented immigrants who were generally told to avoid driving attention to their status, were more encouraged to to speak out publicly about their stories of seeking asylum and the failures of refugee system that hurt them and their families. In this way, NSM was able to offer a counter-narrative to dominant discourses on refugeedom of the time, as well as give concrete meaning to abstract and complex struggles. This allowed undocumented activists to voice their claims to legitimacy on topics like immigration policy. For example, Elvira Arellano, a Mexican immigrant who sought sanctuary in Adalberto United Methodist Church in Chicago in 2006 with her young son Saul (a US citizen), and became the most prominent spokesperson for the emerging immigrant rights movement, insisted on the importance of offering a counter-narrative from the unauthorized immigrant’s point of view: ‘I wanted to talk about what was happening in my case in particular and to call attention … to what is going on … and ask what we want to do about it. I wanted to give us a voice’ (Lippert and Rehaag, 94). 

Challenging and changing unjust laws 

“As an organization, we do not encourage people to break the law. We, do, though, advocate quite strongly that unjust laws be changed. In fact, we don’t think it’s right that honest people should have to die in the desert to try to find a job” – from SM movement supporter.

On the other hand, sanctuary movements directly challenged the discourse around the economic cost or benefit of resettling refugees. A response to the charge by authorities and opponents that the immigrants were simply migrant workers entering the US to find work was that they ‘were able to counter their argument with evidence of why the refugees were really coming here—because they were trying to save their lives, not make money” (Lippert and Rehaag, 31). Although supporters of sanctuary movements often appealed to accounts that depicted refugees as positive contributors to society, those appeals were made from a purely moralistic perspective that would portray the claims to their removal baffling and subsequently extend their outrage to the general public. There were frequent accounts of positive experiences with refugee claimants clearly intended to rebut negative stereotypes that practitioners felt were often portrayed in the media. 

Sanctuary Cities under Trump 

Only five days after his Inauguration, President Trump issued an executive order called “Enhancing Public Safety in the Interior of the United States”. This executive order specifically targets sanctuary cities, where “jurisdictions that willfully refuse to comply with 8 U.S.C. 1373 (addressing information sharing regarding immigration and citizenship status among government officials) are not eligible to receive Federal grants, except as deemed necessary for law enforcement purposes”(ACLU, 2018). Throughout 2017, several cities fought legal battles to halt the enforcement of 8 U.S.C 1373 on the grounds that it is unconstitutional (ACLU,2018). In 2018, the Department of justice sent a notice to 23 jurisdictions “demanding all documents reflecting guidance to law enforcement employees regarding all communication with DOJ, DHS,

and/or ICE”(ACLU, 2018). All of these jurisdictions have high populations of immigrants, including New York city and Los Angeles. In July 27, 2018 the district court issued

Permanent nationwide injunction barring the Attorney General from imposing the notice, access, and 8 U.S.C. 1373 compliance conditions on most jurisdictions (excluding Chicago) and the court also finds that 8 U.S.C. 1373 is unconstitutional (ACLU, 2018).

The Center for Immigration studies, a think tank devoted to research and policy analysis of the economic, social, demographic, fiscal, and other impacts of immigration on the United States, posts updated lists and map of current sanctuary counties, and cities: 

Current map of sanctuary counties, cities, and states as of Feb 5, 2020

Each sanctuary city, county or state has a description of their position of their detainer policy (which can be found if you hover your mouse over the location). For instance, Grand County, Colorado’s detainer policy will not honor ICE detainer. 

Self-representations of Refugees in Popular Media

As discussed in previous blog posts, refugees, asylum seekers, immigrants and undocumented people are often lumped into the same group in popular media. Refugees, asylum seekers, immigrants and undocumented people represent themselves within mainstream media and outside of it. Some self-representations of refugees engage with anti-refugee sentiments while others construct representations of themselves and their struggles outside of the narratives pushed on to them. 

The song titled Immigrants (We get the Job done) from the play Hamilton, involves a range of artists ( K’Naan,Snow tha Product, Riz Ahmed and Residente) that are all either immigrants, refugees, undocumented people themselves or are children of. The song describes immigrants as workers:

“And it’s, it’s really astonishing that in a country founded by immigrants

“Immigrant” has somehow become a bad word

I got one job, two job, three when I need them

I got five roommates in this one studio, but I never really see them

Who these fugees what did they do for me

But contribute new dreams.” (Genius, 2016)

The artists emphasise the economic benefits their communities have brought to their host countries. Rather than asserting their rights on the basis of their humanity, they engage with their own existence and the existence of their community on economic terms. 

In contrast, the song F*CK ICE 2 by Manny Sanchez unapologetically and comedically discusses the realities of being undocumented and being confronted with racial profiling. The song has recently gone viral on Tik Tok. The song describes community resistance to ICE raids and deportation: 

“Shout out to my mom serving beans and tortillas

F*ck ICE, b*tch, we sending shots, no tequila

Free all them kids, man, I can’t forget my tía

Shout out to my immigrants, I know they valiente

Chinga la migra, fuck deportation

‘Cause when I’m on the mic I represent all nations” (Genius, 2019)

 Manny Sanchez is able to represent himself without engaging with narratives pushed onto his community. The unapologetic nature of the song is resistance to the pressure to justify safety, and opportunity, for specific groups on economic terms. 

Economic cost/benefit

The economics of refuge-seeking is a complicated issue; while some view refugees as an economic burden, others point to refugees’ economic contributions to Canadian and American society. Others, however, have argued that decisions about refugee-hosting should be made independently of economics, given that refuge-seeking is primarily a humanitarian concern. Thus, in understanding the economics of refuge-seeking, it is important to both look at how refugees are perceived by the general population, as well as scholarly research that discusses the economic costs and benefits of refuge-seeking. 

An economic burden?

An analysis of political discourse in Canada and the United States reveals that ‘refugeedom’ and asylum-seeking are clearly perceived in terms of economics. Not only in Canada and the United States, but also elsewhere, refugees have been accused of being economic migrants claiming to be persecuted in order to gain entry; in 2008, for example, the UK’s Immigration and Border Minister Phil Woolas asserted that “‘most asylum seekers, it appears, are economic migrants’, as opposed to being genuine refugees fleeing persecution (Zimmermann, 335). The arrival of such individuals has been criticized, with US President Donald Trump stating in the 2016 Republican Party Convention that the arrival of such individuals has “produced lower wages and high unemployment for our citizens” (Borjas). Similarly, not only do opponents of refugee-hosting use economic justifications for their arguments, so too do proponents of refugee-hosting. As Dina Nayeri writes in her article “The ungrateful refugee: ‘We have no debt to repay,’” friends would use her contributions to American society as proof of the benefits of accepting refugees, “As if that’s proof that letting in refugees has a good, healthy return on investment” (Nayeri). 

In regards to concerns, media in Canada and the US has pointed out the cost of hosting asylum-seekers and refugees, with the City of Toronto alone having spent $64.5 million on emergency housing for refugees in 2017 and the province of Ontario recently demanding $200 million from the federal government for costs incurred relating to asylum-seekers arriving via non-official land entry points ( (Armstrong, “What governments spend on refugees”). The UNHCR also recognizes that refugee-hosting is not without cost. In the words of the UNHCR, “States that host refugees incur substantial financial costs, not least in paying salaries and meeting the other expenses of officials and members of the security services who are responsible for refugee-related tasks” (Executive Committee of the High Commissioner’s Programme). 

But it is equally important to remember the cost of strict border controls that stop to prevent refugees, asylum-seekers and migrants from entering. As the American Immigration Council wrote in 2019, the US federal government has spent approximately $330 billion on the agencies that carry out immigration enforcement since 2003 (“The Cost of Immirgration Enforcement and Border Security”). In October 2019, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and Customs and Border Protection (CBP) in the US employed over 84,000 people in total (“The Cost of Immigration Enforcement and Border Security”). The cost of detaining migrants in detention centres is also relatively high; according to ICE’s 2018 budget, the average cost of maintaining one adult detention bed was $133.99 (Urbi). These high costs have led the government to look to private prisons, which can receive stipends from the federal government if their costs are lower than public detention centres (Urbi). Not only have strict controls on migration led to higher enforcement budgets, they have also taken an impact on jobs and the economy. In 2012, Alabama legislators passed one of the strictest immigration laws in the US making nearly all interactions with the state a test of one’s legal immigration status (McMahon). Which the state deemed the law as a way to fight unemployment, expecting that as undocumented immigrants left new jobs would be opened for US citizens, Trisha McMahon writes that as companies such as Alabama’s poultry processers could no longer find enough workers, leading them to import African and Haitian workers (McMahon). Similarly, strict immigration laws in Georgia resulted in $140 million in agricultural losses (McMahon). Laws such as those enacted in Alabama and Georgia in 2012 pose challenges for those seeking asylum whose status in the US has not yet been regularized. Whether one is in favour of stricter controls on immigration and refuge-seeking or whether one is in favour of welcoming more refugees, there is thus clearly a cost involved.

A Complex Reality

While those opposed to migration and consider refuge-seeking to be an economic threat often rely on the argument that there are a fixed number of jobs in the economy and that newcomers “just compete for a slice of the piece rather than helping the pie grow” (Kerr and Kerr), it is important to recognize that the reality surrounding refugee-hosting and the economy is more complex than it may seem. Similarly, while political discourse often portrays refugee-hosting as an economic burden, the economic consequences of refugee-hosting are actually more complex. In an article entitled “When Migrants Rule: The Legacy of Mass Migration on Economic Development in the United States,” Andrés Rodríguez-Pose and Viola von Berlepsch go beyond most studies on migration and refuge-seeking which look uniquely at the short-term effects of migration (p.645). Instead, they look at the long-term effects of migration beginning in the late 19th century and argue that “those places where migrants settled in large numbers are significantly better off than those that were relatively untouched by migration” (p. 645)

The UNHCR — while recognizing the cost of refugee-hosting (see Executive Committee of the High Commissioner’s Programme) — is also keen to point out the economic contributions that refugees bring to their host country. In an article entitled “Refugees are Good for Canada,” the UNHCR points out the economic contributions of refugees to Canada, such as the story of Ahmad Abed, a Syrian refugee who became an entrepreneur after founding a business called “Our Sock Shoppe” in Guelph, Ontario (“A Syrian refugee returns to entrepreneurial roots in Canada”). Beyond anecdotal evidence, research conducted by the Harvard Business Review shows that immigrants writ large tend to overcontribute to entrepreneurship than the U.S.-born population; while immigrants make up only 15% of the workforce, they represent a quarter of entrepreneurs (Kerr and Kerr). Research also casts doubt on the argument that refugees are primarily unskilled workers. As Aimee Chin and Kalena E. Cortes write, “refugees fall in the middle of the distribution of educational attainment among US immigrants” (Chin and Cortes, 603); this means that the average refugee hosted by the U.S has a level of educational attainment higher than that of family preference immigrants (Chin and Cortes, 603). 

Conclusions: The Pertinence of Economics in Refugee-Hosting?

It is therefore important to go beyond looking at simply the economic cost. While refugee-hosting is clearly seen as an economic issue in both Canada and the U.S., it is important to remember that refugees’ motivations are not primarily economic; as Christian Dustman et al. write, refugees are accepted for humanitarian reasons and “host countries tend not to have economic integration of the refugee migrants as their primary objective” (Dustmann et al., 501). Beyond economic arguments, one can also look to the cultural and social contributions of refugees; however, as Dina Nayeri writes, accepting refugees is a “basic human obligation,” as “It is the obligation of every person born in a safer room to open the door when someone in danger knocks.” In the 1951 Convention, which Canada has signed and to which the US has indirectly agreed to by ratifying the 1967 Protocol, the principle of non-refoulement prohibits states from expelling refugees against their will “to a territory where he or she fears threats to life or freedom,” irrespective of the economic burden accepting such a refugee would entail (UN General Assembly, 176).  Finally, it is important to remember that both Canada and the U.S. have a greater financial ability to host refugees than other countries. As Timothy J. Hatton points out, with approximately three-quarters of the world’s refugees remain in Asia and Africa, the “burden” of refugee-hosting still fails primarily with the world’s poorest countries (Hatton, 456). 

Despite concerns by Canada and the U.S. on the cost of hosting refugees, the financial cost of taking in refugees falls by and large outside of North America.

Discussion Questions:

  • Should refuge-seeking be treated as an economic issue or should it be seen as solely a humanitarian one?
  • How do economic concerns (such as the idea of refugees as an economic burden) influence the way refugees are such in public discourse?


When looking at the recent history of refuge-seeking along the Canadian and North American border, it is clear that this is a period in which the “human rights encounter,” as Itamar Mann would write, has been reduced and nearly eliminated. As Mann writes, “Comparable dynamics have also developed on the U.S.-Mexican border, where drones and other surveillance technologies have transformed the border into a much wider ‘borderland’” (Mann, p. 172). Likewise, rather than viewing the decision to accept migrants as stemming from a human rights commitment, this decision has instead been viewed in economic terms, with refugees and asylum-seekers either being viewed as an economic burden or as economic contributors who make Canada and the United States better places. The human rights encounter has also been weakened by a lack of understanding around who is arriving at the border; while non-Mexicans far outnumber the number of Mexicans apprehended at the U.S. southern border (, there remains a lack of understanding in the general population about who is arriving. Our research on the political stakes has shown that immigrants, migrants, refugees, and asylum-seekers have often been grouped together in discourse. Similarly, by looking at incidents from the Komagata Maru in 1914 to current political discourse, it is also safe to conclude that race and racism have played a role. Also of importance, the high budgets and over-bureaucratization of agencies such as ICE appear, as well as safe third country agreements, such as the treaty between Canada and the U.S. and the agreements recently signed by Trump and Central American countries, appear to greatly weaken the leverage that refugees and asylum-seekers have.

In North America, refugees, asylum seekers, and other migrants have consistently been understood from the lens of economics. The pressure to display the ability to contribute economically to the host country has made it increasingly more difficult for refugees or asylum seekers to assert rights on the basis of their humanity. However, despite these hurdles faced by refugees, asylum seekers and migrants that weaken the human rights encounter, there is still reason for migrants, refugees and asylum seekers to remain optimistic. From legal challenges to the work played by refugee advocacy groups, refugees have found ways to overcome these struggles. Susan Coutin’s research on the legalization strategies of Salvadoran migrants, for example, shows that rather than being passive victims, refugees and asylum-seekers have in fact taken action to secure their rights (Coutin).


“A Syrian refugee returns to entrepreneurial roots in Canada.” UNHCR Magazine, 19 February 219. Accessed 15 March 2020. 

Armstrong, Peter. “What governments spend on refugees is less important than how they spend it.” CBC News, 28 July, 2018. Accessed 15 March 2020. 

Borjas, George J. “Yes, Immigration Hurts American Workers.” Politico Magazine (September/October 2016). Accessed 15 March 2020. 

“Canadian COVID-19 Policy Reversal, Shutting down US Border to Refugee Claimants, Breaches International Law.” Amnesty International Canada, 20 Mar. 2020,

Chin, Aimee and Kalena E. Cortes. “Chapter 12 — The Refugee/Asylum Seeker.” Handbook of the Economics of International Migration 1 (2015): 585-658.

Dustmann, Christian, Francesco Fasani, Tommaso Frattini, Luigi Minale and Uta Schönberg. “On the economics and politics of refugee migration.” Economic Policy (July 2017): 497-550. 

Executive Committee of the High Commissioner’s Programme. “The role of host countries: the cost and impact of hosting refugees.” UNHCR, 2011. Accessed 15 March 2020.

Griffith, Bryan, and Jessica M. Vaughan. “Map: Sanctuary Cities, Counties, and States.”,

Kerr, Sari Pekkala and William R. Kerr. “Immigrants Play a Disproportionate Role in American Entrepreneurship.” Harvard Business Review. 3 October 2016. Accessed 15 March 2020. 

Lippert, Randy K., and Sean Rehaag. Sanctuary Practices in International Perspectives :

Migration, Citizenship and Social Movements . Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge, 2013. Print

“K’naan (Ft. Residente, Riz Ahmed & Snow Tha Product) – Immigrants (We Get the Job Done).” Genius, 2 Dec. 2016, e-lyrics.

“Major Developments Relating to ‘Sanctuary’ Cities Under the Trump Administration.” American Civil Liberties Union,

Mann, Itamar. Humanity at Sea: Maritime Migration and the Foundations of International Law. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016. 

“MANNY SÁNCHEZ – FUCK ICE 2.” Genius, 7 Aug. 2019,

McMahon, Tamsin. “The cost of intolerance.” Maclean’s 125, no. 46 (November 2012). Accessed 15 March 2020.

Nayeri, Dina. “The ungrateful refugee: ‘We have no debt to repay.’” The Guardian, 4 April 2017. [Accessed 18 March 2020]. 

“The Cost of Immigration Enforcement and Border Security.” American Immigration Council. October 2019. Accessed 15 March 2020.

UN General Assembly, Convention and Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees, 28 July 1951, United Nations, Treaty Series, vol. 189. [accessed 18 March 2020]

Urbi, Jaden. “This is how much it costs to detain an immigrant in the US.” CNBC, 20 June 2018. Accessed 15 March 2020. 

Zimmermann, Susan E. “Reconsidering the Problem of ‘Bogus’ Refugees with ‘Socio-economic Motivations’ for Seeking Asylum.” Mobilities 6, no. 3 (September 2011): 335-352.

11 thoughts on “North American Border: Sanctuary Cities, Self Representation, and Economics

  1. Addressing the section of your blog post entitled Sanctuary in the U.S, how do these deportations and raids conducted by organization such as ICE fall under the refugee convention? Wouldn’t deporting these immigrants be considered in violation of the repatriation section of the convention , or does the U.S use technicalities to achieve this?

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you for your question! The U.S is not signatory to the convention but they are signatories to the Protocol relating to the Status of Refugees. Under United States refugee law, a refugee is defined as a “ person who is unable or unwilling to return to his or her home country because of a ‘well-founded fear of persecution’ due to race, membership in a particular social group, political opinion, religion, or national origin.” The United States may claim that the people ICE is targeting are not refugees (since they do not fit their definition of a refugee), but are rather “economic migrants” who are detained on the grounds of their “illegal” entry into the country. The claim to “illegal” entry comes from the fact that many people who are targeted by ICE or face deportation may not have applied for refugee status or for asylum, though many people who do, do face deportation as well. While deporting undocumented migrants may in theory violate the repatriation section of the convention, the real issue is that migrants that are detained realistically do not have access to satisfactory legal aid to claim that those violations are present.


  2. Firstly, I would like to commend your group for writing such a comprehensive and informative piece! Secondly, I enjoyed the inclusion of the two songs contrasting popular culture representations of immigrants with political rhetoric surrounding immigrants, refugees, and asylum-seekers. A lyric that stood out to me in Immigrants (We Get the Job Done) was “We’re America’s ghostwriters, the credit’s only borrowed”. It made reflect about how settler states like Canada and the United States are quick to focus on the latter portion – state – rather than the settler portion when it comes to refugee and immigration related policies. I find the role played by churches in protecting refugees and asylum-seekers from law enforcement fascinating; civil disobedience on the part of church groups highlights an inherent tension in the separation of Church and State when it comes to humanitarian matters. The fact that ICE is reluctant to enter churches to enforce deportation orders demonstrates, at least to me, that private citizens can have a large impact on shaping refugee protections, especially when their efforts centre around a common moral goal. To answer your first question, I think that refuge-seeking is both an economic and humanitarian issue: refuge-seeking comes with a price both for refugees and for host countries. In terms of precedence, I think that the humanitarian component should outweigh the economic costs when it comes to policymaking and that host countries that are able to share more of the global “burden” of refugees should do so. In response to your second question, I think that the objective of refugee resettlement often gets lost in translation in public discourse because this discourse is shaped by individuals who are responsible for the setting the economic parameters around receiving refugees. If public discourse was shaped by refugee or immigrant associations, I am certain that the conversations would look a lot different. The negatives tend to drown out the positives, but as you mention, the positive contributions refugees make are not to be overlooked.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Hey Karina, thank you for the kind words about our blog post! I’m glad you brought your attention to the focus on statehood over the settler-colonial legacy of countries like Canada and the U.S. in the creation of migration-related policies. The lack of acknowledgement of the settler legacy definitely is a pre-condition to denial of those states’ inherent indebtedness to the exploited labour of the colonized people, and subsequently the exploited labour of migrants. You brought up a really good point about how refuge seekers bear their own economic burden often without the assurance that they will be able to stay in a host country. When economic cost regarding refugeedom is discussed, it is specifically regarding the economic cost of hosting refugees. Meanwhile, the cost of refuge-seeking often slips out of public discourse. Refugees have significant economic costs with arriving to the host country and additionally stand to bear significant economic losses when potentially needing legal representation (outside of legal aid provided by the state).

      Liked by 2 people

  3. Really interesting post, thank you!! In the section on sanctuary, I found it interesting that it is mainly religious, mainly Christian organizations working to help and protect refuge-seekers and undocumented immigrants from the American state that itself uses the protection of the American nation, historically self-defined as a (white) Christian nation, to justify its actions. In terms of seeing refuge-seekers in economic terms, did you come across any organizations or refuge-seekers sort of saying “So what if some of us migrate for economic reasons”? That seemed to be some of what the SM supporter was saying in the quote “we don’t think it’s right that honest people should have to die in the desert to try to find a job.” The use of terms like “economic migrant” to create a counter-argument against the humanitarian duty to help others in need only works when we don’t consider some level of economic rights/stability as a human right or need.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Jakob wrote this response (for some reason, wordpress won’t let him post without approval):

      Thank you for your question and your comment!
      I like your point about so what if some migrants come for economic reasons. I definitely agree that some level of economic rights/stability should be considered as a human right or need; however, given the process for applying for asylum and refugee status works, I have not come across too many examples of this argument being used.
      Since the 1951 Convention defines refugees as those facing persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group or political opinion, focussing on economic motivations would not help their case on a legal level. Most of the time, I found that saying that refugees came for economic reasons was primarily used by those opposed to welcoming refugees as a way to discredit them as being illegitimate refugees (‘bogus refugees’) because they were coming for a better job/economic future and not because of genuine persecution. However, for those who are undocumented but are not seeking asylum/refugee status, economic arguments are more successful. The American Civil Liberties Union, for example, has used economic arguments (
      With that being said, I have come across a number of organizations that do focus on the economic wellbeing of refugees. Refugees International, for example, has a Labor Market Access Program that seeks to give refugees who have settled in host countries the opportunity to become economically self-sufficient ( In my research though, I found that most advocacy groups did not use arguments about the economic situation of migrants to defend refugees, but that is not to say that this argument is never used.


  4. Thank you for your question and your comment!

    I like your point about so what if some migrants come for economic reasons. I definitely agree that some level of economic rights/stability should be considered as a human right or need; however, given the process for applying for asylum and refugee status works, I have not come across too many examples of this argument being used.

    Since the 1951 Convention defines refugees as those facing persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group or political opinion, focussing on economic motivations would not help their case on a legal level. Most of the time, I found that saying that refugees came for economic reasons was primarily used by those opposed to welcoming refugees as a way to discredit them as being illegitimate refugees (‘bogus refugees’) because they were coming for a better job/economic future and not because of genuine persecution. However, for those who are undocumented but are not seeking asylum/refugee status, economic arguments are more successful. The American Civil Liberties Union, for example, has used economic arguments (

    With that being said, I have come across a number of organizations that do focus on the economic wellbeing of refugees. Refugees International, for example, has a Labor Market Access Program that seeks to give refugees who have settled in host countries the opportunity to become economically self-sufficient ( In my research though, I found that most advocacy groups did not use arguments about the economic situation of migrants to defend refugees, but that is not to say that this argument is never used.


  5. Thank you for the informative post! I liked how you addressed present-day realities of covid-19 and emergency policy introduced to shut down Canada’s borders to all asylum claimants. Contextualizing these “unprecedented times” (as many news reports claim) on an expansive history of refugee resettlement and precariousness is important in understanding how Canada’s settler-colonial legacy permeates their perception of refugees for solely their economic value. I enjoyed your song selections for refugee representation, and your analysis, specifically the statement: “The unapologetic nature of the song is resistance to the pressure to justify safety, and opportunity, for specific groups on economic terms.” Resistance through means of art (more specifically music) is powerful in the emotion, presence, and experience it conveys through tone, depth, and voice. In your examples, artists actively fought back against their designation as “economic gains” for their host country to assert their inherent value as humans (and just that). I was curious to see if you were able to find any institutional examples of refugees investing (financially and through the community) into the development of these arts. While these individual artists are powerful in their own right, collectives of marginalized refugees often lobby and advocate for a deeper social awakening to the social, cultural, and political lives of those they represent.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you for your comment! During my research, I found several art collectives and record labels specifically for undocumented immigrants. Most were based in the U.S.
      This research and art project is in association with University of San Francisco. While this project does not exclusively curated for or by undocumented people, it is interesting to see a public art project that centers the importance of sanctuary cities that engages with the public on a local and global scale.

      For instance, one of their art projects called the Sanctuary City Print Cart called on artists from 36 different countries to design contemporary rugs that reflect the notion of sanctuary. Another project, called the (de)appropriation wall included the public where an entire 20x30f wall was covered in posters made by volunteers. A sharpie pen was left hanging on the wall which. The public covered the wall in their comments. People were able to talk about illegal ICE raids and what that means for their community.
      This is a platform for specifically latinx people and communities that includes interviews, articles, art, music and literature. Art and literature created by undocumented people is safely shared in this space. Additionally, open discussions on ICE raids and family separation can be found here.

      View at
      I was able to find to undocumented film makers collective, however there was not much information available on who they are and what they do. One collective wrote an open letter to Netflix and other major media platforms to include undocumented film makers: (
      This record label called “Illegal Alien Records” is a Mexican record label that focuses on electronic music. The founder of the label, Ricardo Garduno, is a U.S. born undocumented immigrant.

      The label discusses why they chose the name “Illegal Alien Records”:
      “The name ‘Illegal Alien’ was adopted because that was the status granted by the US government to Ricardo Garduno when he lived in the United States. At that time all the immigrants who entered the country illegally were denominated like that. As a result of this, the rights of all illegal immigrants were limited or nulled in many cases. So, awarding this name to the label is a way to remember those immigrants around the world, whose objectives by leaving their countries of origin is to work for a better life and to show that, regardless of the status that other social groups attribute to us, it is possible to reach objectives.”
      Here is a list of undocumented artists and filmmakers. Their work can be found on social media platforms like Instagram and youtube.


  6. I haven’t got much of a question, but I found your overview of the situation on the American border to be really informative, and I found it interesting how refugees have been “[pressured] to display the ability to contribute economically to the host country,” which, as you’ve pointed out, reflects Dina Nayeri’s observation that refugees are expected to repay the country that has accepted to host them within their borders, as though they must repay a debt for being given basic human decency. Thus, it reflects this idea that, not only should refugees show gratitude toward their host countries, but that their acceptance into countries like the US was not simply a human obligation, but one side of a transaction that must thereafter be repaid by contributing to the economy in a positive way. I also really liked that you addressed the reality of the precarious times we now live in, and how the Canadian case is just one example of the difficulties faced by refuge-seekers around the world.

    Liked by 2 people

  7. I really like the update given at the beginning addressing the COVID-19 situation, and how this has impacted Canadian policies toward refugees.
    Simply out of curiousity I wonder how you feel about this policy, as it is very complex, clearly as we do want to slow the spread of the virus and flatted the curve, and this is calling for drastic measures, but it brings up an interesting conversation about how we continue to act as responsible global citizens despite the times and circumstances.

    I felt that you could draw a lot of connections to Nayeri’s article on the Ungrateful Refugee along with your discussion on economics, especially because we see that the UNHCR and Western countries like to focus on the benefits of hosting refugees to the host country. How do you see Nayeri’s struggle with feeling grateful fit in with this discourse?

    I enjoyed your topic especially because of how relevant it is to our lives directly in Canada, and how relevant it is to the circumstances we are living in and present day politics!


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