Molly Fee

Department of Sociology

Of Special Humanitarian Concern: Historicizing 21st Century Refugee Selection Policy in the U.S. (Research Proposal)

Research Proposal

Historicizing 21st Century Refugee Selection Policy in the U.S.

By examining U.S. refugee policy in the 21st century (2001-2016), this project seeks to understand how the U.S. government selects refugee groups for resettlement. Considering that there are currently 21.3 million refugees in the world, selection is an integral part of resettlement, as countries like the U.S. must determine who is offered resettlement and, more frequently, who is not. While the Refugee Act of 1980 established that the U.S. Resettlement Program would admit those “refugees of special humanitarian concern to the United States,” interpretations of what constitutes “of special humanitarian concern” have shifted over the past several decades. Thorough historical work has demonstrated how refugee admissions through the 1990s were informed by Cold War politics, as resettlement decisions were filtered through an overtly geopolitical lens (Loescher and Scanlan 1986; Bon Tempo 2008; Porter 2017). Yet refugee selection in the 21st century can no longer be explained by these long-held theories. This project asks why some refugee groups make it onto the U.S. government’s agenda for large-scale resettlement, while others are resettled in much smaller numbers. Using archival research and interviews, I will trace refugee selection as it shifted under the Bush and Obama Administrations in order to link prior historical analyses with more recent policy outcomes, questioning the extent to which the same driving forces inform present-day refugee admissions decisions.


Molly Fee is a PhD student in the Department of Sociology at UCLA. She holds an M.A. from UCLA in Sociology and two M.A.s from the American University of Paris, one in International Affairs and one in Cultural Translation. Her research interests include international migration, forced migration, and refugee resettlement.