Migrants? Refugees? Let’s Get the Terminology Right



Today’s immigration debate has undoubtedly become America’s hot-button political issue. As activists, politicians, and immigration experts (including lawyers) debate who is/isn’t eligible to remain legally in the United States, a major problem goes unaddressed: correct terminology. We often hear words like, “migrant”, “refugee”, and “asylum seeker” being used interchangeably. However, these words carry very different technical and legal meanings and are not interchangeable no matter how similar they sound.

So what is the difference between a migrant and a refugee and why does it matter? Current U.S. immigration law might allow foreign nationals in the United States as refugees if they are fleeing from political, religious, or ethnic persecution in their home country (they may also still seek refugee status and not cross any borders, too). A refugee, unlike an asylum seeker, is determined to meet the requirements of someone who is persecuted before arriving in our country, whereas an asylum seeker is someone who arrives here first and then asks to be allowed to remain in the country for a well-founded fear of persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion. In other words, there are very specific grounds on which a person abroad can qualify as a refugee – or another to claim “asylum” once they are here in the United States. This is very different from a ‘migrant’ for one key reason – the involuntary resettlement of a person.

A ‘migrant’ is a casual and unskilled worker who moves about systematically from one region to another offering their services on a temporary, usually seasonal, basis. Migrants can also be high-skilled workers who are brought in by visas to fill certain work roles and positions. Migrants primarily relocate for economic reasons and to improve their quality of life. Most importantly, they are voluntary. The main differences between a ‘refugee’ and a ‘migrant’ is that while one is fleeing persecution, the other is moving to improve his/her economic condition.

Overall, correct terminology is critical in the immigration debate. It is the only thing that can truly define the difference between someone who is residing here legally or illegally or determine a person’s motives for relocating here in the first place. A migrant is not an asylum seeker and an asylum seeker is not a migrant. And yes, that makes all the difference in the policy world. We are often so perplexed by the issue at hand, the breaking news, and the activism behind the topic, that the very words we are using can be problematic and contradictive. So just remember, keeping immigration terminology straight will help you master the debate in the long run!

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