Columnist Razvan Sibii: The dubious distinction between migrant and refugee

  • In this March 30, 2021, file photo, young minors lie inside a pod at the Donna Department of Homeland Security holding facility, the main detention center for unaccompanied children in the Rio Grande Valley run by U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), in Donna, Texas. AP

Published: 7/19/2021 11:04:49 AM

There may be no better example out there of the power of words than the way American immigration authorities deploy the “migrant“/“refugee” pair of labels when they adjudicate someone’s request to be allowed into the United States.

If they decide to call you a “refugee,” congratulations, come in and pursue your happiness in America! If they deny you the “refugee” label and you’re stuck with “migrant,” we’re sorry — we understand that you might be running away from hunger, poverty, unemployment, corruption and assorted indignities, but you don’t match our definition of “refugee” so our hands are tied. That’s the law, you know!

That is, indeed, the law. The 1980 Refugee Act (introduced in the Senate by Ted Kennedy and signed into law by President Jimmy Carter) says that a “refugee” is a person who has a “well-founded fear of persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion.”

Different administrations might interpret the words “social group” differently (does that category include women who are terrorized by their partners or people who are victimized by violent gangs?), but they all agree that someone is worthy of a safe haven only if they are living in “fear of persecution.”

Fear of starvation, fear of inadequate health care, fear of working yourself to death just to feed your kids, fear of seeing those kids drop out of school in order to take awful jobs — these don’t cut it. Why? When did we decide that a lawyer who is constantly harassed by police because he insists on seeking justice is worthy of refugee status, but a farmer who has lost his already minuscule land to drought and predatory lending practices isn’t?

That decision was made in 1951, when, shaken by the horrors of World War II, most of the world’s countries began signing and ratifying the Refugee Convention which forbids the signatories from returning a refugee to a country where it is likely they will be persecuted. (The Convention also explicitly recognizes that refugees might be forced to cross borders illegally and asks that they not be penalized for that — but that’s a story for another time).

Then came the Cold War, and the U.S. became preoccupied with rescuing political dissidents in the Communist world. That’s when, according to Rebecca Hamlin, an associate professor of political science at UMass Amherst, the definition of “refugee” solidified around an understanding of “ideological persecution” as “the ultimate suffering.” And these days, she says, “clinging to a very individualized liberal conception of persecution” conveniently provides us with a guilt-free way to limit the numbers of those we allow into the country.

Earlier this year Hamlin published a book titled “Crossing: How We Label and React to People on the Move,” in which she reminds immigration advocates that the distinction between the “migrant” and the “refugee” categories is but a “legal fiction” with little correspondent in reality.

“Recent ethnographic work exploring people’s internal motivations for leaving home has consistently belied the assumption that border crossers can be easily sorted into two groups,” Hamlin writes in her book. Poverty, corruption and violence are interrelated phenomena, and the toxic brew they create victimizes individuals and families regardless of the exact dosage of each ingredient.

In the short term, Hamlin told me in an interview, it makes perfect sense for an advocate to lobby a politician or a judge to adopt a more generous definition of “social group” (as in, “fear of persecution on account of... membership in a particular social group”), but the rest of us can’t go on forever pretending that “true refugees” are rare, as opposed to the legions of voluntary “migrants” who present themselves at the border.

The separation of “persecuted refugees” from “economic migrants” allows this country to avoid sharing its resources with too many people while maintaining a clean conscience thanks to the magic of labels.

“We cannot be afraid to have really difficult conversations about the violent work that borders do. You want to live in a house with a yard and washing machine and two cars in the driveway? How much violence are you willing to tolerate to have that and keep it? I think people make themselves feel better about the violent work that is done in our name by believing that (“true”) refugees aren’t being kept out by that violence,” Hamlin said.

We can’t be surprised that successive Congresses and presidents have failed to significantly reform our legal understanding of who is a “refugee” and who isn’t. To them, immigration is all too often a game of numbers. But that doesn’t mean that we, the people, should also buy into their conveniently skewed ranking of suffering. Our laws should emerge out of our ethics, not the other way around.

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