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Nov 10, 2015 | Paulette E. Martin

Refugees and Migrants in America: There's a Big Difference?

The “global refugee crisis” and the “humanitarian crisis” are terms that have become a popular topic in the media over the past few years. Although both groups of people have a lot in common, in the eyes of the federal government, there are huge disparities between the two.


In the summer of 2014, more than 60,000 unaccompanied children—the highest number ever recorded—put their lives in the hands of human traffickers, hoping to escape gang violence, extreme poverty and in some cases, wishing to be reunited with parents living in the United States. These minors came mostly from Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador and Mexico.


On the other side of the world, a bloody civil war in Syria has forced millions of people to flee their country. Meanwhile, Europe is facing the largest flow of refugees since World War II.


Although all of these people seek safety and a better life, the U.S. government classifies Syrians as “refugees” and the undocumented minors as “migrants.” You might ask, “What is the difference between those two terms?” and “Why aren’t both groups of people placed in the same category?”


To better understand, the government defines a migrant as someone who chooses to move from place to place in hopes of a better life. They are processed under the receiving country’s immigration laws. For example, leaving Honduras to flee poverty or to be closer to their family isn’t classified as life-threatening. If they can get into the Unites States, these migrants have to fend for themselves.


On the other hand, a refugee is someone who has been forced to flee his or her home country and cannot return because he or she has a well-founded fear of persecution based on religion, race, or nationality or because their homes have been destroyed in a natural disaster. Refugees, as defined under the 1951 Refugee Convention, are entitled to basic rights under international law, including the right not to be deported immediately. Refugees have access to resources as soon as they are allowed to enter America.


To alleviate the Global Refugee Crisis, the United States admitted approximately 70,000 refugees from all over the world this past fiscal year. President Barack Obama directed his administration to increase the number of Syrian refugees that are allowed to enter the country next year by 10,000.


The U.S. State Department has oversight of the resettlement program, which annually resettles thousands of people in about 190 communities. According to The Dallas Morning News, Texas leads in refugee resettlements, accepting about 7,200 people from more than two dozen countries. Houston led the state with nearly 2,000 resettlements in 2014.


Texas also leads the nation in the number of child migrants that enter the U.S. from Mexico and Central American countries. The Rio Grande in South Texas has become the preferred point of entry rather than Arizona. According to the United Nations and some human rights organizations, the humanitarian crisis has resulted from an increase in gang-related and state-sanctioned violence. In countries such as El Salvador and Guatemala, many local police and government officials are involved in organized crime and oftentimes gangs will target children for recruitment and trafficking.


When a child migrant reaches the United States and is caught without a parent and apprehended by immigration authorities, the child is transferred to the care and custody of the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR). Federal law requires the ORR to feed, shelter and provide medical care to the children until they are released to family or family friends in the United States during their immigration proceedings. The arrival of so many children has backlogged the immigration courts and some children have faced expedited deportation.


In either case, refugee or migrant, these people seek safety and a better life. Our faith calls us to have compassion and to act on behalf of others, whether it is to help a hopeful Syrian family fleeing war, or make our voices heard for ethical immigration reform.


Martin is communication specialist for the Diocese of Texas.