53 pages • 1 hour readJessica Goudeau
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In After the Last Border: Two Families and the Story of Refuge in America, Jessica Goudeau argues that the United States’ immigration policy has historically been shaped by the American public’s view of itself as either welcoming to those in need, or exclusionary and fearful. Tracing the experiences of two refugees, Goudeau exposes their traumatic journeys and how the latter approach of exclusion makes an already difficult transition to the US all the more so. Goudeau has a PhD in literature and over a decade of experience working with refugees. Originally published in 2020, the book received the J. Anthony Lukas Book Prize, a Christopher Award, and was named Library Journal’s best social science book of the year.
This guide uses the 2021 paperback edition. Goudeau has changed the names of all individuals in the work for their families’ protection.
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Content Warning: The source text contains descriptions of political violence, allusions to child sexual abuse, sexual violence, racism, and war-related traumas.
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Alternating the stories of two refugees, Mu Naw and Hasna al-Salam, Goudeau exposes the effects of US immigration policy on people’s lives. A Karen Christian originally from Myanmar, Mu Naw emigrated to the US with her husband, Saw Ku, and their two young daughters in 2007 after living in a crowded refugee camp in Thailand for several years. Hasna, a Syrian Muslim, was forced to flee her country when Bashar al-Assad’s government violently cracked down on dissenters and innocent civilians in 2011. In 2016, Hasna, her husband Jebreel, and their youngest daughter, Rana, emigrated to the US as part of the refugee resettlement program. While Mu Naw benefitted from a sympathetic American public and its resultant policies, Hasna was negatively impacted when American public opinion shifted to embrace an exclusionary identity and restrictive immigration policies.
Goudeau weaves into her narrative the history of US immigration law from the 1880s through the administration of US President Donald Trump. Noting that the laws have vacillated between restrictive and liberal approaches, she argues that American public opinion and identity have driven those policies. In the early 20th century, following a large wave of immigration from Southern Europe, restrictionists appealed to anti-immigrant feelings to pass the 1924 Immigration Act. That law set racist quotas, favoring northern Europeans and drastically limiting immigrants from elsewhere in the world.
This law and the public’s exclusionary identity had tragic consequences in the 1930s and 1940s, as victims of Nazi persecution and genocide were turned away. Following World War II, American public opinion shifted. Identifying the country as a place of refuge, Americans supported changes in immigration law. In 1965, the Immigration and Nationality Act passed. The law removed the racist quotas, prioritized the admission of refugees, and established merit-based admissions and family reunification as pillars of US immigration policy. In 1980, the Refugee Act, which created the refugee resettlement program and liberalized the definition of refugee, passed.
Following the September 11, 2001 terror attacks, an atmosphere of fear prevailed. The Refugee Resettlement program was temporarily paused and, for a time, the numbers of refugees accepted declined. However, the administration of US President George W. Bush revived the program and promised to accept more people from refugee camps. In 2007, Mu Naw and her family benefited from that decision. While the resettlement program continued to flourish in the administration of US President Barack Obama, it reached a crisis during Trump’s presidency. Promising to build a wall to keep out Hispanic immigrants and to ban Muslims from the country on the campaign trail, Trump discontinued the policy of family reunification and treated refugees similarly to other immigrants once in office. His approach brought the refugee resettlement program to the brink of collapse.
Goudeau also provides details and insights into the lives of both Mu Naw and Hasna. As a five-year-old child, Mu Naw fled Myanmar, crossing the border into Thailand and living in a small refugee camp only to be later chased out of there by soldiers. Returning to Myanmar, she lived with a cruel cousin for three years and then returned to a larger camp in Thailand where her mother was living. After marrying Saw Ku there, the couple had two daughters and initiated the resettlement application for their sake. They emigrated to the US in 2007, where the family faced a difficult adjustment. Mu Naw was pregnant and Saw Ku qualified for only low-wage jobs. Their marriage became strained, although they later repaired their relationship. Adept with English, Mu Naw was able to win a good job with a fair-trade company. After 10 years in the US, the couple moved into their own home with their three children.
Living in Daraa, Syria, Hasna and her husband Jebreel had four adult children and a young daughter when protests erupted in 2011. Determined not to be a casualty of the Arab Spring, Bashar al-Assad reacted with vengeance. The military attacked Hasna’s town one night and the next day the men were rounded up and taken away. While Jebreel returned quickly, Hasna’s son Yusef and son-in-law Malek were detained for months. Her other son, Khassem, who was completing mandatory military service, was arrested and tortured for criticizing al-Assad’s raid on his home city. When her sons and son-in-law were released, Hasna and Jebreel got all their adult children into Jordan. When shots were fired at her daughter Rana’s school, Hasna and Rana went to Jordan as well. Jebreel remained in Syria to guard their home.
Once in Jordan, the trauma continued for Hasna. Word came that a missile had hit Hasna’s home, seriously injuring Jebreel. Her daughter Laila and her husband Malek had returned to Syria with their young son when Malek was denied re-entry to Jordan after a trip back there to help his family escape. Malek was later killed by a missile, leaving Laila and two children in Syria. Denied entry to Jordan, Laila was almost killed in an extremely difficult journey to Turkey.
For the sake of her children and grandchildren, Hasna decided to apply for resettlement. Repeatedly, she was assured that the policy of family reunification would give her children priority to emigrate to the US. After a series of thorough interviews, Jebreel, who was now disabled, Hasna, and Rana moved to Austin, Texas in 2016. Despite living in a drab and small apartment, they could not make ends meet. Hasna was the only adult who could work and she qualified for only low-wage jobs. The family depended on charity to pay their bills. However, Hasna looked forward to the arrival of her adult children who could help economically.
When Trump assumed the Presidency, that aspiration was dashed. He abandoned the policy of family reunification and instituted a travel ban prohibiting Syrians. Her daughter Amal’s family was safely resettled in Canada. Khassem’s family was in Jordan. Most concerning, Yusef, Laila and her two sons were waiting to hear about permission to work in a European country. This change in policy, driven by an exclusive sense of American identity, devastated Hasna’s family.