Congolese Refugees and the Institutional Logics of anti-Blackness in a Global Racial Order

Katherine Jensen, University of Wisconsin-Madison
Jake Watson, Vanderbilt University

Congolese refugees have been the primary group resettled to the United States over the past several years. They are also a key refugee group in Brazil, where the vast majority—nine out of ten—of Congolese claimants obtain asylum. This paper draws together two independent ethnographies to explore Congolese experiences of attaining refuge through the resettlement process from Uganda to the United States, and asylum-screening process in Brazil. Across both contexts, we find that racialized experiences in and outside resettlement and asylum bureaucracies substantially shape how Congolese assess the context of reception. These experiences generate a deep ambivalence among Congolese about the relative benefits of their refugee status and prospects for membership and belonging. This paper offers three theoretical contributions. First, we trouble predominant perspectives in immigration research that cast inclusion as a function of the formal policy context. Instead, we reveal that inclusion is a social process mediated by institutional logics and practices both within and outside immigration bureaucracies. Second, we reveal that racialization informs these logics and practices of legal inclusion to generate dynamics and outcomes obscured by existing frameworks. This suggests the need to go beyond formal binaries of inclusion/exclusion to examine how discursively and institutionally embedded forms of racialization constitute experiences of mobility and settlement. Third, the comparative approach sheds light on the existence of a global racial order of anti-Blackness that structures institutional practices and migrant experiences across contexts. This order is refracted through the particular logics and dynamics of bureaucratic fields – here of refugee governance – as well as national racial ideologies. While anti-Blackness has been thought of through logics of exclusion, we show here that it manifests through even “inclusive” policies. This points to a more nuanced understanding of how anti-Blackness operates to create variable and differential outcomes across the global migration system.

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 Presented in Session 113. Presidential Session: Contexts of Reception in Global and Historical Perspective