CAHSS Social Justice Colloquium: Skid Row Refuge

Guest speaker Cindy I-Fen Cheng explored her research in refugee resettlement at the World Theater, presented by The 25th Annual Social Justice Colloquium on March 11.  

Cheng is a historian at the University of Wisconsin, and her work examines the displacement of Salvadoran immigrants seeking asylum. 

The discussion began with the Reagan administration and the initiative to alter the public understanding of Cold War events, masking their involvement in the Salvadoran Civil War.  

The U.S. refused to recognize the people of El Salvador as refugees, contributing to the homeless crisis. Cheng emphasized that U.S. Cold War policies increased the rate of urban poverty. 

Reagan’s management prioritized foreign policy and prevented the spread of communism over humanitarian concerns, labeling reports of human rights violations as unreliable. 

Cheng explained the federal government limited admittance into the country through legal barriers constructed to keep Latin Americans out of the country.  

If immigration officials concluded an applicant did not face imminent political prosecution, they were left with two limited options – allotted refuge quota or political asylum. 

Cheng illustrated these extreme constraints, sharing that fewer than 300 Latin Americans gained acceptance as refugees. The organization of the admission process concealed America’s influence in the displacement of immigrants. 

Salvadorans that found themselves in the U.S. became a means to an end, a transnational labor pool of undocumented workers with no guaranteed rights or civil liberties. 

After her presentation, Cheng shared her reading tactics with students, her approach to studying primary sources that oppose immigration, deconstructing events with critical thinking, and reading against the grain. 

“You’re learning not just to read history,” Cheng said. “You’re writing history.” 

Having the opportunity to create and influence the understanding of immigration is an empowering skill. Cheng calls it the historian’s craft, producing culture and reinterpreting memory.

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