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The History of Refugees in America: A Conversation with Mason Professor David Haines

By Colleen Kearney Rich on May 10, 2011

David Haines

Prior to coming to Mason in 1997, anthropology professor David Haines worked for the federal government’s refugee resettlement program. A two-time Fulbright scholar, he has worked on and written about immigration issues for much of his career. In his most recent book, Safe Haven? A History of Refugees in America, Haines examines seven decades of immigration history and shows how refugees and their American hosts continue to struggle with a variety of issues.

What prompted the writing of this book?

I have been involved in refugee research and policy for several decades. It was simply time to bring together the different pieces of that experience and try to create an integrated portrait of the relationship between refugees and America. It was also my hope that the book could serve as a reminder that this relationship, although sometimes troubled, nevertheless remains an absolutely fundamental current in American immigration today, as it has in the past. Without understanding refugees, we cannot understand American immigration; without understanding American immigration, we cannot understand America.

Was there anything in your research for the book that surprised you?

I continue to be surprised at the extremity in views of refugees, but perhaps this is understandable given the enormous social and cultural diversity among the refugees who come to the United States. Unlike the great majority of other immigrants, who are already connected to us as family members of previous immigrants, refugees are often from new origins and with unpredictable destinies.

Perhaps the true surprise, then, is the goodwill and energy that many Americans continue to demonstrate in welcoming newcomers who are perhaps our greatest diversity challenge.

The word “refugee” is used frequently across the media. What is a refugee in the contemporary world?

The word really has two main meanings—at least in the United States. One, more cultural and emotional in tone, is rooted deeply in the Judeo-Christian-Islamic heritage. That meaning acknowledges that people often must flee, that their flight may have spiritual as well as political and economic roots, and that they are often fleeing as a people, rather than simply as individuals.

The other meaning, more precise and legalistic, is usually connected to the United Nations definition of refugee that was incorporated into U.S. law with the Refugee Act of 1980. That usage involves a more individualized judgment about the precise reasons for flight, whether that flight was across national borders and whether the refugee could return home or find haven in another country.

The two meanings are, of course, related in many ways, and any good American refugee policy has to encompass both of them. Nevertheless, the two meanings diverge in important ways. In practical terms, for example, the more cultural and emotional definition rooted in American history, thought, and spirit is the only feasible basis for accepting large numbers of refugees, while the more precise and legalistic definition is more appropriate for individualized judgments about refugee status.

Immigration was a hot topic in the past election and looks like it will continue to be so in the next. Do you feel the country/government has made any progress in this arena?

It may well be a hot topic, but that is heat not light. I do not think the media or the government is doing a good job explaining immigration to the American people. We actually have a fairly sensible overall immigration policy—although I do think we are losing the balance between understanding America as land of refuge and as land of opportunity.

The big problem today is not really about immigration policy overall. Instead, the collusion of government inaction and business thirst for low-wage labor has created a large undocumented nonimmigrant population. In particular, the government (again with the collusion of business) failed to implement the control mechanisms put in place by the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act. So this is not a failure of immigration policy but a failure in implementation. Furthermore, the majority of the undocumented are from one particular country, Mexico, our most populous neighbor and a neighbor on whom we have not had a very positive effect over the years. So, again, this is not really immigration policy in an overall sense; instead, it might be better seen as something like “neighbor policy.”

Whatever the causes, the net result is that there is a large undocumented population. Some solutions are available. One would be what I think virtually every American would support to some degree: legalization for those people who have been in America so long and so successfully that it would be senseless to deport them. The proposed DREAM Act (with legalization for some of the undocumented attending college in the United States) is one example of this approach.

Another solution would be to recognize that the majority of these people are from a neighboring country. Why, then, do they have to become immigrants instead of simply being people from a neighboring country, people who have a right to be in America not as immigrants but as Mexicans? I do not have much hope that these kinds of options will be pursued. Politicians are not looking for the middle ground or effective practice. They are looking for votes, and, for votes, they need to polarize public opinion rather than inform it.


  1. Dear Mr Haines I’m proud to read this, thank you.

    Comment by Sir Seargeant Meier — October 18, 2013 @ 12:07 pm

  2. Wonderful, brief and concise article. My wife works at one of the “legal” entities in Houston, that processes and cares for some of the incoming young people (4-17), from Central America.

    I hear so many hair raising stories about these young people. Quite heartfelt, and as well alarming!

    I wish the U.S. greater population was aware of the stories from these kids….BUT, it is all very hush hush.

    Thanks Again.

    Comment by Michael Ashe — August 28, 2015 @ 7:57 pm

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