Faculty Grant: Kristin Yarris, Brenda Garcia Millan, Karla Schmidt-Murillo

Creating Communities of Welcome: Understanding Motives to Assist Migrants and Refugees in a Hostile Era
by Brenda Garcia Millan, Karla Schmidt-Murillo, and Kristin Yarris

During the Spring of 2017, Dr. Kristin Yarris and graduate students Brenda Garcia Millan and Karla Schmidt-Murillo from the University of Oregon’s Department of International Studies developed a research project investigating the factors that contribute to migrant and refugee inclusion in Lane County, Oregon. The project’s idea surged after the rise in anti-immigrant sentiment and hostile immigration policies in the wake of the 2016 presidential election. The research team received the CLLAS Faculty-Collaborative grant, received UO IRB approval for the study in June, 2017, and conducted field research for the project during the rest of the summer and fall of 2017. The research was qualitative, and included open-ended, semi-structured interviews with nearly 30 local volunteers who have provided social assistance to different immigrant and refugee populations in Oregon, in addition to the researcher’s participant observation in community groups providing assistance to immigrant and refugee communities.

A central motive of this project is to understand how local communities are responding to the current hostile climate towards immigrants and refugees.  The current federal policy landscape includes refugee admissions reductions, the travel ban on eight majority-Muslim countries, the decision to rescind the DACA and DAPA programs, as well as the revocation of Temporary Protected Status (TPS) for Haitians, Central Americans, Nepalis, and other groups. Additionally, discourse around the construction of “the wall” at the U.S.-Mexico border, heightened interior enforcement, and Department of Justice attacks on sanctuary jurisdictions have all contributed to the anti-immigrant climate in the United States. Our project asks: How are local volunteers active in the immigrant integration and refugee resettlement communities responding to the current political climate? What are the motivations of those working as volunteers on behalf of immigrants and refugees? How do these local, volunteer actions create spaces of welcome and inclusion in Oregon? By responding to these questions, our project aims to contribute to broader debates in migration studies about the meanings of citizenship and belonging, and how these meanings are constituted “from below,” through local volunteer efforts. Furthermore, we are interested in understanding how these local efforts might constitute a counter to dominant political narratives of ethnonationalism, racism, exclusion, and xenophobia. 

The research team conducted a total of 29 interviews with local volunteers in Lane County between September – December 2017. All participants were identified either directly through the researchers’ networks, or through word-of-mouth recruitment using volunteer networks.  The semi-structured interview guide we developed and implemented consisted of ten open-ended questions asking about volunteers’ motives to assist immigrants and refugees, personal and family histories as related to their work with immigrants and refugees, and the types of volunteer engagements they had participated in. All interviews were conducted in volunteers’ homes or other community locations and were audio recorded, with participants’ permission. The participants are between 22 and 77 years of age, with an average of 53, and all reside in Lane County. Participants vary in terms of professional background, retirement status, religious affiliation, and race/ethnicity, and our interviews sought to elicit how these different aspects of participants’ identity might shape their motives to aid immigrants and refugees. 

After completing the interviews, the researchers conducted an iterative process of content analysis to identify three over-arching themes from the interviews that help us respond to our research questions. We describe the first theme as “affect politics,” which we understand as  the ways participants’ emotional responses to immigrants and refugees compel them to act on behalf of inclusion and resettlement.  For instance, when asked why she first began volunteering with a local refugee resettlement network, one participant explained, “It all started when the news was focusing on the ‘flood of Syrian refugees,’ it was a way to combat the feeling of powerlessness.” This feeling of powerlessness is an example of how emotional responses can motivate people to act on behalf of displaced persons. In fact, many of our study participants mentioned the Syrian refugee crisis, and in particular, the story Alan Kurdi, a three-year-old Syrian boy who drowned in the Mediterranean while attempting to cross into Europe by boat— a photographic image that circulated widely through international news wires in late 2015—as the catalyst of their work on behalf of refugee resettlement and immigrant integration. 

The second theme we identified through our analysis of our interviews was “personal and family history.” During our interviews, participants described aspects of their personal family history that they consider relevant to their motivations to assist refugees and immigrants. As an example, in reference to his own family history of displacement, one of the interviewees explained, “I feel very proud that I am directly descended from immigrations. I know we all are. Just depends on how back we go. In that I’ve always felt really strongly.” This participant has been active in immigrant integration and inclusion efforts in Lane County for decades, and sees his family story of immigration as tying him personally to his work on behalf of the community.

The third theme we have identified from our interviews is what we describe as “American values,” or the ways that people’s understandings of what the United States stands for, or should stand for, motivates them to act on behalf of immigrants and refugees. In fact, participants articulated a strong sense that America should accept immigrants and refugees, and that this inclusion is part of what makes this country unique. Often, this sense of nationalism is tied to people’s personal stories as descendants of immigrants, but our analysis is also interested in the idealized sense of American values articulated by our participants. As an example, several interviewees referenced the work by Emma Lazarus “New Collossus” or the Statue of Liberty poem as a guiding principle for their work, citing, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free…” as an embodiment of this ethos of welcome and inclusion. 

While our analysis of our interview corpus is ongoing, we have tentatively generated some initial conclusions from this work. First, we view affect and emotion as a central motive for people to engage in political action on behalf of immigrants and refugees; often, people’s emotional responses emerge from a sense of helplessness and wanting to engage in local activities that counter this feeling through concrete acts of welcome and inclusion. In many cases, people’s affective responses to contemporary displacement reflect their sense of disconnect between the current hostile response of the United States towards immigrants and refugees and the fact that their own ancestors were immigrants who fled persecution to rebuild their lives in this country. In these cases, volunteers connect their motives to help immigrants and refugees to a way of building the type of community and nation that they idealize the U.S. should be—a country offering welcome to those seeking refuge. That the current political climate is acutely hostile to immigrants and refugees thus only further fuels volunteers’ sense of outrage and injustice, further motivating them to act to create spaces of welcome and belonging. In this regard, this study on refugee inclusion in Lane County shows that these resettlement efforts offer a glimpse of what an inclusive citizenship might look like at this historical moment.     

—Brenda Garcia Millan and Karla Schmidt-Murillo are  graduate teaching fellows, and Kristin Yarris an assistant professor in the Department of International Studies.