- Southern Hospitality?Islamophobia and the Politicization of Refugees in South Carolina during the 2016 Election Season
Hospitality has figured prominently in the regional imaginaries of the U.S. South for centuries. Yet Southern hospitality has typically been conceived, practiced, and represented in ways that exclude particular groups (Alderman and Modlin 2013). Critical accounts of Southern hospitality rightfully center on the exclusion of African Americans, but a growing body of literature has begun to focus attention on the mixed reception that immigrants have received in Southern communities (Winders 2013; Ehrkamp and Nagel 2014; Steusse and Coleman 2014). Unauthorized Latino immigrants in particular have been the target of heavy-handed law enforcement and of local laws and ordinances designed to encourage ‘self-deportation’ (Jamison 2016).
Until recently refugees have been relatively insulated from more strident expressions of anti-immigrant sentiment in the South partly because of their small numbers1 and partly because of their status as authorized immigrants and ‘deserving victims’ (Yeh and Lama 2004). But this situation has changed dramatically since the summer of 2015 when the Obama Administration announced it would admit 10,000 Syrian refugees for resettlement. Republican opposition to the resettlement plan was immediate and gained significant momentum in the wake of the terrorist attacks in Paris and the mass shooting in San Bernardino, CA (neither of which involved Syrian refugees). With the start of the presidential primary season, refugee resettlement has been politicized in a manner not seen since the Salvadoran refugee crisis in the 1980s.
This brief essay will explore the rise of anti-refugee sentiment in the lead-up to the 2016 presidential elections. I begin by arguing that the federal government’s efforts to depoliticize refugee resettlement since the 1990s have been overtaken by the anti-Muslim hysteria that has gripped the country since the 9/11 terrorist attacks. I then argue that anti-refugee, anti-Muslim, and anti-immigrant sentiment has gained particular traction among white conservative voters in the South who perceive numerous threats to the country’s social, economic, and moral order. Anti-refugee sentiment certainly is not unique to the South. Yet regional expressions of [End Page 283] Islamophobia and anti-refugee sentiment stand out in the national political landscape because they face fewer challenges from those advocating for refugees or for religious tolerance.
the depoliticization of refugee resettlement
Formal refugee policy in the U.S. developed in the decades after World War II, motivated initially by the post-war displacement crisis in Europe. Cold War imperatives subsequently became the main factor shaping refugee policy, with refugee status granted primarily to those fleeing communist regimes in Eastern Europe, Cuba and Vietnam (Gibney 2004). In the late 1970s, however, President Jimmy Carter sought to bring U.S. immigration policy in line with international humanitarian conventions. The Refugee Act of 1980 removed nationality as a criterion for refugee status and required that refugee cases be judged on their individual merits. Despite the shift to a ‘neutral’ humanitarian framework, Cold War politics continued to drive refugee policies through the 1980s, and the Executive branch continued to wield significant power in granting or denying refugee status based on its foreign policy objectives. The ideological nature of refugee policy was on full display in the 1980s when the Reagan Administration refused to grant refugee status to those fleeing from El Salvador, which had become a proxy in America’s struggle against the Soviet Union (Macekura 2011).
Not until the end of the Cold War did the humanitarian agenda become more evident in U.S. refugee policy. This is not to say that refugee resettlement was entirely depoliticized. There was considerable debate in the 1990s, for instance, around the differential treatment of Cubans, who continued to benefit (albeit less than before) from Cold War-era policy, and Haitian ‘boat people’, who were considered economic migrants despite Haiti’s obvious political turbulence. But for the most part refugee resettlement maintained a low profile in national political discourse—certainly when compared with the intense politicization of asylum seekers and refugees in Europe during the same period (Bloch and Schuster 2005). Refugees were mostly shielded from the vitriolic anti-immigrant politics that swept the country...