Immigrant versus Refugee: What’s the Difference?


WASHINGTON — Last week, the Obama administration talked of granting refugee status to the thousands of unaccompanied young Hondurans fleeing to the United States.

According to TIME magazine, more than 16,000 unaccompanied Honduran children have been “apprehended attempting to cross into the United States from Mexico illegally” since last October. Under the White House-proposed plan, the Honduran youth would be interviewed to determine if their case qualifies them for refugee status.

Before considering Congress’s response or thoughts of executive action, there is a more pressing question to be answered. What does it mean to be a refugee and how is it different from being an immigrant?

Below are basic, but key, distinctions between the terms which could prove to be crucial in the weeks ahead as Americans continue to grapple with the border crisis.

What is an Immigrant?

Under the Immigration and Nationality Act, any ‘alien‘ in the United States can be broadly defined as an immigrant, with the exception of those legally admitted under separate, specific nonimmigrant categories (a nonimmigrant is one who seeks temporary entry for a specific purpose i.e. business and student related).

While both legal and illegal aliens are often classified as immigrants, only legal aliens are lawfully considered Permanent Resident Aliens.

Reason of Relocation: Migrants, especially economic migrants in particular, move in order to improve economic prospects, subsequently improving the lives of both the individual and their families.

Removal: According to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, removal may be based on “grounds of inadmissibility or deportability.”

A USA Today article spotlighted the difficult transition from immigrant to naturalized citizen in the United States, as the application alone costs $680 and can only be completed after five years residence, or three years if married to a U.S. citizen. Furthermore, the federal government limits the number of potential citizens from each country. The process includes interviews, lawyers and a continuation of steeped fees.

What is a Refugee?

Definition: A refugee, defined by the 1951 Refugee Convention, is someone who, “owing to a well-founded fear of being prosecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality, and is unable to, or owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country.”

Reason of Relocation: Migrants may move in order to find improved living and economic conditions for themselves and their families; however, refugees have little choice and must move in order to save their lives or protect their freedoms.

Resettlement: Considering some refugees are not able to return home and their needs may not be addressed in their current residence, the UNHCR resettles these candidates from a refugee camp to a third country as a safe and sustainable solution. However, of the 10.5 million refugees of UNHCR concern, only one percent is submitted for resettlement.

In 2011, the UNHCR submitted 92,000 refugees as candidates for resettlement. Looking at a breakdown of the nationalities, a large number of UNHCR-facilitated resettlement candidates came from Myanmar (21,300), Iraq (20,000), Somalia (15,700) and Bhutan (13,000). Furthermore, about 10 percent of all candidates were women and girls at risk.

Within in the same year, the UNHCR assisted in the resettlement of nearly 62,000 refugees, with many from Nepal, Thailand and Malaysia.

Resettlement countries provide refugees with protection, both legal and physical, as well as set up a pathway for naturalized citizenship. While a small number of states participate as a resettlement country in the UNHCR program, the United States is the top resettlement country, followed by Australia, Canada and Nordic countries.

Blythe Riggan

Sources: USA Today, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, UNHCR 1, U.S. Department of Homeland Security, UNHCR 2, UNHCR 3, TIME, CNN
Photo: TIME


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