Refugee Perspectives on the Resettlement Public Discourse in a Rural American State

by Erik Amundson

Refugee resettlement has been the subject of extensive scrutiny and political debate in the United States, with opinion polls showing increasingly negative attitudes toward migrants. As such, this paper examines how resettled refugees interpret this public discourse in a more isolated, rural part of the country with traditionally low immigration rates. Two sequential phases of fieldwork are used to collect data in this area, including a series of focus groups with refugees, followed by interviews with individual participants to discuss the responses in more depth. Findings show that resettled refugees felt existing community members support isolationism, tend to conflate different migrant groups, and often have limited contact with refugees. However, purposeful efforts to bring resettled refugees and longtime residents together can help to reduce misinformation and allay public fears.

Background

This paper describes an ongoing effort in a rural American state by personnel at the federal department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to help eliminate misconceptions about refugees and to ultimately reduce prejudicial attitudes and negativity. For background, HUD is a cabinet-level agency in the United States that implements and oversees a variety of housing assistance programmes for lower-income families and individuals. As a HUD Field Office Director, I routinely engage with a wide range of migrants, including refugees and asylum seekers, who are seeking various types of government assistance as they are resettling in towns and cities across my state. An important part of HUD’s mission is to create diverse, inclusive communities and to provide affordable homes for all. As such, we often assist refugees who arrive with little and need support from a variety of governmental agencies. However, my office is located in an isolated part of the country which generally has lower numbers of immigrants and resettled refugees. Consequently, this can often generate misinformation regarding perceived threats and negative stereotypes.

Rural areas and attitudes toward refugees

Many of the more remote, rural parts of the United States have not historically attracted large numbers of foreign-born individuals and have little previous experience in dealing with diversity. As a result, contentious political debates and public opinion polls in these areas have shown a concerning rise in anti-migrant sentiments and deep suspicion of refugees. As Temple and Moran (2006) point out, refugees can often find themselves isolated in these mostly homogenous areas with little history of multiculturalism, with longtime residents often unprepared and fearful of their arrival.

While concerns about refugee resettlement tend to generate strong emotions, the debate can often be polarized with misleading information.  

While concerns about refugee resettlement tend to generate strong emotions, the debate can often be polarized with misleading information. This is reflective of Collier’s (2013) argument that migration is generally politicized before it is analyzed, thus reflecting a toxic content of high emotion and little knowledge. On one side, advocates argue that refugees are nonthreatening populations who pose little danger and are further victimized by negative public attitudes. On the other side, opposition groups view refugees as potential terrorists who threaten national security interests and inner stability (Bollfrass et al. 2015). These perceptions have resulted in a xenophobic backlash in which sympathy for refugees has often been suspended by fear, mistrust, and prejudice.

This negativity can be explained by the basic premise of intergroup contact theory, which posits that prejudice and hostility result directly from generalisations and oversimplifications made about an entire group of people based on mistaken or incomplete information (Allport 1979). However, under certain conditions contact between groups can promote acceptance and tolerance, thus prejudice may be reduced as one learns more about a category of people. As a result of new appreciation and understanding, negativity, hostility, and discrimination should diminish.

Methods

In an effort to develop a more holistic understanding of how refugees currently residing in my state understand and counter this negativity, I first attended a number of events in 2016 designed to mobilize the general public against resettlement. These included three civic forums, two public rallies, a protest march, and a demonstration held at the state capitol building. After learning more about this strident opposition, I organised and facilitated a series of three focus groups with recently resettled refugees to explore how they interpret the public discourse on this issue. Participants were recruited with the assistance of staff at non-profit organisations who work with refugees and also by advertising in public buildings. The main topics of discussion at the focus groups included: community attitudes, commonly held perceptions, opposition to resettlement, and issues unique to rural states. All sessions were recorded and transcribed verbatim upon completion.

Additionally, I conducted follow up individual interviews with six refugees to examine the content of the focus group dialogue in more detail. Each interviewee was asked the same set of questions about the findings; however, some additional questions were generated based on the content of the responses (Creswell 2014). As with the focus group sessions, each interview was recorded and transcribed. After completing both parts of the data collection process, all transcripts were carefully read through in their entirety to look for common keywords and patterns in the data. Next, broad concepts were identified and further refined to generate meaningful categories, with the findings reported after similar themes repeatedly transpired. To ensure anonymity, interview participants were assured they would not be identified and that no key quotes could be attributed to any specific individual. Based on an analysis of the data collection during these two sequential phases, the following broad themes emerged: isolationism, conflation, and limited contact.

Key Findings

Support for isolationism

One of the most prominent discussion points that surfaced in the focus groups was the distinctive isolationist mentality prevalent among many of the existing residents. A common sentiment was that longtime community members cherished the area’s remoteness and rural seclusion because it insulated them from the social problems associated with larger urban areas. Accordingly, many participants described feeling like unwanted outsiders who had difficulty finding acceptance in this distinctly homogenous culture. The following comments shared during the interview process highlight these viewpoints:

They are uncomfortable with us being here; they try to avoid us all the time. (Anon. 2016)

It feels like we are disturbing the peace…I get the impression people here want to be left alone. (Anon. 2016)

In analyzing the public discourse, this phenomenon was commonly masked as community preservation or maintaining the status quo. However, most conspicuously, this vantage point is used as a rationale for keeping outsiders away. Loewen and Friesen (2009) describe similar levels of anxiety and uneasiness towards different migrant groups during sequential waves of immigration in several smaller host communities in Canada’s prairie interior. Consequently, isolationist attitudes are connected to support for immigration restrictions, thereby lowering the possibility that any refugees will be resettled in this area.

Conflation of immigrant groups

A second noticeable theme was the belief that residents tended to view migrants as a homogenous group, undifferentiated by country of origin.  

A second noticeable theme was the belief that residents tended to view migrants as a homogenous group, undifferentiated by country of origin. It is apparent that terminology such as immigrant, asylum seeker, and refugee are not fully understood by existing residents, which can result in attitudes that conflate several different issues. Particularly in regard to Muslim immigrants, there is little distinction between individuals who enter the country legally as refugees, or those with student, tourist, or marriage visas. Interview respondents frequently expressed concerns that they are perceived as potentially dangerous and could be associated with other extremists who committed acts of terrorism. As one refugee succinctly stated:

No, we aren’t here to take over the place; to start a war. The locals just don’t understand…we are not all the same. (Anon. 2016)

Disturbingly, the prevalent discourse at anti-refugee rallies was marked by xenophobia towards Muslims, including references to Sharia law, jihad, and terrorism, which ultimately breeds enmity towards refugee resettlement. As Timberlake and Williams (2012) hypothesize, these negative views of refugees and Middle Eastern immigrants are often reflective of the polarized debates about immigration policy at the national level. Interestingly, speakers at public rallies displayed the greatest levels of conflation, although this might have been done intentionally to deliver alarming messages in an attempt to garner further support. Rabrenovic (2007) warns that a lack of experience with ethnic and racial minorities gives supremacist groups an opportunity to expand their membership base by promoting hatred and fear across isolated, rural smaller communities.

Limited contact influences worldviews

Furthermore, it appears that rather than actual encounters with refugees, the political rhetoric and image-framing activities of various anti-refugee groups have been relatively successful at influencing the attitudes of existing residents. Rather than basing their opinions on personal contact and individual experiences with migrants, refugees believed that community members generally rely on other sources of information to shape their views. Many focus group participants highlighted this lack of interaction with comments such as:

There are not many minority groups living here…people think that what see happening in Europe, with crime and terrorism and everything, will happen here. (Anon. 2016)

They fear us but don’t know us. (Anon. 2016)

I don’t think anyone here has actually met a Muslim before… (Anon. 2016)

Several scholarly studies have shown that views on migrants are heavily influenced by the media when audiences live in places that are not very diverse because other sources of information are absent. For example, Mahtani (2008) contends that residents who do not have face-to-face communication with newly arrived immigrants and refugees rely on what they read and hear in the popular media to understand immigration issues. This supports Crawley’s (2005) seminal argument that media representations more strongly influence how people perceive refugees, rather than any form of direct contact or personal experience. Still, some resettled refugees mentioned they were able to develop personal connections within the community through local advocacy groups, churches, and other faith-based organisations, which helped them to counter many of the negative stereotypes and alleviate many of the fears expressed by the general public.

Conclusions

The findings of this study have implications for local approaches aimed at improving community attitudes toward refugees. It was found in this area that a lack of experience with ethnic and racial minorities means that efforts attempting to reduce misinformation regarding perceived threats and negative stereotypes can help lessen prejudicial attitudes and hostilities. Accordingly, opportunities to provide exposure and meaningful interactions between longtime residents and migrants might help to gradually improve public perceptions. Therefore, the HUD Field Office in which I serve has started coordinating several community events designed to bring resettled refugees and existing residents together to share in cultural activities and educational programmes. A few examples of these recent activities include: local resource fairs, neighbourhood roundtables, and community outreach meetings targeting people of similar ages and occupations. Our goal has been to open a dialogue between existing residents and newcomers by facilitating communication and reducing barriers to interaction. As a result, these purposeful efforts to provide outreach and increase public exposure have already helped to reduce stereotypes and offer new perspectives on the predicaments faced by refugees every day.


Erik Amundson serves as the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development’s principal representative and top management official in the state of Montana. In this capacity, he coordinates outreach activities and programme delivery to communities and acts as a liaison to a wide range of stakeholders, including elected officials, state and local representatives, non-profit organisations, low-income families, homeless individuals, and the general public. He has worked in the field of housing and community development for more than 20 years.


The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the official policy or position of the federal department of Housing and Urban Development, the United States government, or OxMo.


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