by Beth Malmgren
Member, Church of the Palms Social Justice Team
Immigrant; Alien; Illegal Immigrant; Illegal; Refugee; Asylum – we hear these terms everyday through whatever news media we watch or listen to. But, do we understand the meaning? It is my opinion that it is important to know the difference, as “words do matter.”
An IMMIGRANT is a PERSON who comes to a country to take up permanent residence. The need to escape from poverty, to find available employment or to escape natural disasters drives immigration flows.
A foreigner who enters the US without an entry or immigrant visa (one who crosses the border by avoiding inspection or who overstays the period of time allowed per a visa ) may be referred to as an ALIEN; ILLEGAL; ILLEGAL IMMIGRANT, or ILLEGAL ALIEN, UNDOCUMENTED or UNAUTHORIZED. However, these terms are NOT interchangeable. Let’s explore the meanings.
ALIEN is a term used in legal language for a non-citizen resident, regardless of whether that person resides in the country legally or illegally. This term originated from British law and has been a legal designation for foreign-born residents since the Revolutionary era and continues to be used by the Department of Homeland Security and US Immigration and Customs It is used as a technical term in legal documents. Alien is a word that is also associated with extraterrestrial life and is perceived as dehumanizing when applied to immigrants. It is now associated with anti-immigration policies and advocates.
We have all heard the term “the illegals,” a term that makes the immigrant advocates (and me) cringe. Recent years have brought about a push to change the vocabulary to avoid the term “illegal” and in 2013, the Associated Press stated that “illegal” should be used to describe actions, not people, and dropped the term “illegal immigrant” from its pages. USA Today, CA Governor Jerry Brown, and the Library of Congress have joined in removing the term “illegal alien/immigrant.” In 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court advocated omitting the term “illegal immigrants/aliens”. Justice Anthony Kennedy noted in the majority opinion that “It is NOT a crime for a removable alien to remain present in the United States.”
“We don’t call pedestrians who cross in the middle of the road illegal pedestrians. A kid who skips school to go to Disneyland is not an illegal student. And yet that’s sort of parallel,” said Otto Santa Ana, professor in UCLA’s Department of Chicana/o Studies.
A REFUGEE is a person who has been forced to leave their country in order to escape war, persecution, ethnic, tribal, or religious violence or natural disaster. It is someone who leaves their own country, often for political reasons and who travels to another country hoping that the government will protect them and allow them to live there. Refugee status is a form of protection that may be granted to people who meet the definition of refugee and are of special humanitarian concern to the US. They are generally people outside of their country who are unable or unwilling to return home because they fear serious harm. One may seek a referral for refugee status only from OUTSIDE the US.
SANCTUARY is a place where someone is protected or given shelter and protection provided by a safe place. The concept of sanctuary is deeply embedded in Western tradition (the underground railroad in the U.S., for example). In biblical times, shelter was offered even to those who might have qualified if the crime lacked intent.
ASYLUM – When people flee their own country and seek sanctuary in another country, they apply for asylum – the right to be recognized as a refugee and receive legal protection and material assistance. An asylum seeker must demonstrate that his or her fear of persecution in his or her home country is well-founded. At the end of 2014, there were approximately 1.8 million people around the world waiting for a decision on their asylum claims.
Jose Luis Benavides, journalism professor at Cal State University said “The words that the candidates (we) use frame the political conversation. Using dehumanizing language then makes it easier for people to justify dangerous policies against a particular group. Words really do matter.” Why not just call them immigrants? That is what they are – whether undocumented or not. And, unless one is Native American Indian – we are all immigrants.