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

By Seibel, Kimberly | Refuge, December 30, 2016 | Go to article overview

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


Seibel, Kimberly, Refuge


Abstract

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.

Resume

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 << personnes agees >> (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.

Introduction

"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. …

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