Bureaucratic Birthdates: Chronometric Old Age as Resource and Liability in U.S. Refugee Resettlement.

Author:Seibel, Kimberly


This article examines age in refugee resettlement by connecting it to the bureaucratic contexts in which refugees acquire and become categorized by birthdates found in their documents. Frequently used as an objective metric, chronometric age takes on new meaning in migration and determines access to work and welfare. This article traces the trajectory of age documents of refugees in a program for "seniors" (sixty and up) in Chicago, Illinois. Drawing upon anthropology and critical gerontology scholarship, I resituate chronometric age in the dynamic relationship between institutions and definitions of old age in the United States. My purpose is to call attention to the consequences of applying U.S. concepts of age to refugees with limited resources.


Cet article etudie la question de l'age dans la reinstallation des refugies en la reliant aux contextes bureaucratiques a travers lesquels les refugies sont identifies et classifies selon la date de naissance qui se trouve sur leurs documents. L'age chronometrique, d'usage frequent comme mesure objective, acquiert une signification nouvelle dans le contexte de la migration et determine l'acces a l'emploi et a l'assistance publique. Cet article retrace le parcours des documents portant sur l'age des clients d'un programme pour > (60 ans et plus) qui sont refugies a Chicago (Illinois). En faisant appel aux recherches en anthropologie ainsi qu'en gerontologie critique, je recontextualise le concept de l'age chronometrique dans la relation dynamique entre les institutions et les definitions de la vieillesse aux Etats-Unis. Mon objectif est d'attirer l'attention aux consequences qui en resultent si les concepts de vieillesse aux Etats-Unis sont appliques a des refugies disposant de ressources limitees.


"Do you know how old you are?," I asked at the very opening of an interview with a couple from Burma/Myanmar. My interpreter translated my questions into Karen as we sat at a small table in the living room of their one-bedroom apartment. Saw Ker Por (1) received Supplemental Security Income (SSI) because his documents established his age as seventy-two. Naw Nee Ah, who took care of their disabled daughter, was fifty-nine according to her documents and, therefore, not eligible. Looking at them both, I found it hard to believe that she was not the same age as her husband, but neither seemed to care as much as I about their numerical ages.

"My age is sixty," Saw Ker Por said initially, laughing before calling to his wife, "Where has she gone to?"

"I don't know how old you are," Naw Nee Ah answered.

"Sixty," he said, "It is in the papers." In interviews with refugees like Saw Ker Por, I learned that the date in one's documents created a potential gap between refugees' and the U.S. resettlement program's understandings of age.

Carried through airports often in plastic IOM (2) bags, the documents of newly arrived refugees sometimes contain generic birthdates--1 January for many, 1 July for some Iraqis. Whatever their significance in home countries or displacement contexts, these birthdates take on new meanings in the United States. Chronometric age enables US. resettlement bureaucracies to process refugees from diverse backgrounds and displacement experiences primarily through mainstream social services. The goal of refugee resettlement is economic self-sufficiency through employment as soon as possible. According to federal policies, refugees eighteen to sixty-four years old are "working age," and sixty-five and older are "non-employable" and "retirement age." (3) The characteristic "work or welfare" (4) approach of U.S. resettlement relies upon categorizing refugees by age.

Documents with chronometric age enable newly arrived refugees to apply for mainstream programs like SSI, but this approach creates some problems. Refugees under sixty-five who did not fit disability standards were expected to work or rely on family members. As "older" workers, they struggled to find and keep appropriate jobs. Case managers had little incentive to help refugees eligible for SSI who still wanted to work. Those who received SSI were vulnerable to losing benefits after seven years unless they were able to pass the citizenship exam. To get around this problem, resettlement programs and refugees sought medical exemptions for this exam with varying success. This tactic reinforced the tendency to limit efforts to integrate refugees deemed non-employable by age, rather than address underlying issues, such as a lack of English language or other skills or unrecognized education credentials or work histories. These are increasingly issues for current incoming groups (5) and pose a problem to address under current ways of organizing resettlement.

Exploring how bureaucracies provide and process refugees according to birthdates in their documents brings attention to how US. constructions of age and aging become transposed onto refugees. I explored the role of age in bureaucratic processes while conducting research at a program serving refugee "seniors" (sixty years and up) in Chicago.

Bureaucratic processes ascribe certain ideas of old age in the U.S. context to refugees. Birthdates provide a means of calculating chronometric age whose significance arises from the assumption that it "will give the most precise and objective information about persons." (6) The term chronometric age best describes my observations of the resettlement process as it functioned as "a pseudo-exact labelling device" by which in "a single tick of the clock, one finds oneself in another category." (7) In the United States, age is used to assign people status, presenting similarities or differences where there often are none. (8) I view this approach as a sort of mistranslation that raises the need to examine the cultural ideologies in which chronometric age is embedded.

Anthropology can provide cross-cultural and critical perspectives to make visible the influence of age ideologies in refugee and migration policies. Research has countered the idea of aging as universally chronological. (9) Collapsing age into chronometric age is a problem, because ultimately "chronometric time is just one, quite limited, way to conceive time" that is "important because of its instrumental and calculative qualities." (10) Categories such as "youth" or "elderly" are also not stable, neutral, or objective but linked to political-economic changes and interactions with the state. (11) To address such issues, age should be considered as an explicit analytic--on the level of gender, race, and class--for examining power dynamics in migration and globalization processes. (12)

Research on the categorization of refugees is important, because "these attempts to figure out who refugees are reveal a great deal about the categories that Americans use to assign people to their proper place." (13) Scholars have linked the "productive citizenship" emphasis in resettlement (14) with employment as the basis of social citizenship to processes of inequality based on gender, race/ethnicity, and class, "categories and mechanisms that daily produce the norms of differential belonging." (15) Age and aging belong among these considerations. My approach is to trace the actual processes of ascribing age to refugees and the ideas and resources attached to it.

Research Context: The Senior Program

Midwest Migration Services (mms) was one of two Senior Programs in all of Illinois after a reduction in the state's Services to Older Refugees discretionary grant in 2012. The goal of these programs was to provide refugees (16) with case management services to facilitate their access to a shifting cast of targeted and mainstream social services subject to funding changes and cuts. In addition to case managers, the program relied on volunteers, family members, friends, and clients themselves to perform the paperwork and advocacy needed to achieve access to such programs.

From 2013 to 2015 (17) I took on an active participant-observer role at the Senior Program at mms. I accompanied clients to appointments at local Social Security and Illinois Department of Human Services offices, assisted with monthly senior workshops and field trips, and attended relevant meetings. I also interviewed staff members and volunteers at Midwest Migration Services and other local resettlement agencies, community-based organizations, advocacy organizations, and relevant government resettlement and social services agencies.

I conducted life history interviews of refugees enrolled in the Senior Program and reviewed their case files and identification documents. My participants were thirty refugees from twenty-three households: ten (five men, five women) from Iraq, (18) eleven (five men, six women) from Bhutan, (19) and nine (seven men, two women) from Burma/Myanmar. (20) These three groups were the largest nationalities in the Senior Program and also accounted for more than half of refugee admissions in recent years. (21) I hired community members to interpret, transcribe, and translate interviews conducted in the refugees' homes, often with family members present. All of the participants were in their sixties to eighties according to their documents and had been in the country for seven or fewer years. In formal, semi-structured interviews, I asked about their work and education histories, migration trajectories, English language learning, and feelings of in/dependence in the United States. I also asked them to compare ideas of age and later life support systems in their countries of origin with those in the United States.

My research participants would have been difficult to locate outside of a context such as the Senior Program, which faced difficulties reaching out to seniors not resettled by their agency. It is unclear whether refugees not included in the program would have been different from those in my study. Like many refugee programs and researchers, I also...

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