Using the term “refugee”

For people in the United States, admitting refugees could, in theory, easily be perceived as a safer bet than other categories like asylum-seekers and tourists. After all, tourists seeking to visit the United States are not generally subjected to anything near the same level of scrutiny as refugees who face 1 ½ to 2 years of document gathering, interviews, and background checks. Asylum seekers also face extensive scrutiny by the US government, but many are already in the United States while that process is underway.

My point is that if you chose one of these categories about which to be afraid, I am not clear why “refugee” would be number one. But that assumes something that we should not take for granted: that we all mean the same thing when we say refugee. Yet what is apparent is that we do not. Instead the word refugee has becomes a catch-all for any foreigner coming to the United States, thus erasing a distinction, say, between refugees and asylum seekers. The crucial nuance is lost.

Moreover, for proponents of greater restrictions on US immigration, refugees may be thought of as less in terms of foreigner writ large and more in terms of Muslim. The general danger, especially after the attacks in Paris, is seen as letting in more Muslims. Take the House bill that passed. It does not ask for extra certification for all refugees, just those from Syria and Iraq. Or: Jeb Bush and Ted Cruz are fine with Christian refugees but keep out the Muslims, thank you very much. You get the idea.

I mention this as a warning to those explaining the intricacies of migration. By all means, carry on, but recognize that the subtleties and distinctions that are so central to understanding human movement are not necessarily heard, especially by those who either don’t follow migration issues regularly, oppose immigration, or both.

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