Reconfiguring the Deserving Refugee: Cultural Categories of Worth and the Making of Refugee Policy

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Studies on asylum give little explanatory power to the role of categories of worth in how lawmakers formulate asylum law in lack of a clear policy framework for determining eligibility for asylum status. This article contends that during periods of policy upheaval, distinctions of worth shift to forefront lawmaking: lawmakers renegotiate the moral boundaries between categories of deserving and undeserving refugees to give content in ambiguous law. In the United States, lawmakers drew on the concept of immutability—the notion that to be worthy of protection you must be targeted on account of traits beyond your control to change—to distinguish between “undeserving” Central Americans fleeing civil wars and gang violence, and “deserving” women subjected to gender violence. Understanding how categories of worth inform the formulation and implementation of law in periods of policy upheaval advances understandings of asylum policy and expands scholarship on the role of ideas about worth in processes of institutional change.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)102-132
Number of pages31
JournalLaw and Society Review
Issue number1
StatePublished - 1 Mar 2020
Externally publishedYes

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Law
  • Sociology and Political Science


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