What Is the Difference Between an Illegal Immigrant and a Refugee?

What Is the Difference Between an Illegal Immigrant and a Refugee? July 3, 2018

What Is the Difference Between an Illegal Immigrant and a Refugee?

What is the difference between an illegal immigrant and a refugee? In some cases, the only difference would seem to be perspective. When we Americans look around the world at people escaping extremely dangerous living conditions in one country, moving to another one without formal permission by the host country, we call them “refugees.” When we Americans look at people escaping extremely dangerous living conditions in their countries, moving to our country without formal permission, we call them “illegal immigrants.” When people around the world look at them, they call them “refugees.” Fortunately, some people in our own country also call them refugees rather than illegal immigrants.

My point is not to erase borders or argue that America should welcome all comers unconditionally; it is to suggest that we Americans should at least consider the matter of perspectives—ours and others’. Too often we do exercise double standards. We criticize other countries for not welcoming with open arms people escaping next door countries where they will almost certainly die for staying. We applaud countries that welcome refugees and we contribute to their programs for housing and feeding them.

Too often, however, when those escaping unlivable conditions south of our own border with Mexico come here, we treat them as criminals. We separate their families, going so far as to take small children away from their parents and warehouse them if not cage them without adequate adult supervision. Many Americans applaud this practice but would almost certainly criticize it if they heard about it being done by another country.

*Sidebar: The opinions expressed here are my own (or those of the guest writer); I do not speak for any other person, group or organization; nor do I imply that the opinions expressed here reflect those of any other person, group or organization unless I say so specifically. Before commenting read the entire post and the “Note to commenters” at its end.*

Another difference may lie in the outcomes of history.

Texans who harshly criticize refugees seeking asylum here without prior permission should stop and at least consider our own history. According to the history books I have consulted, by 1834 more than 30,000 U.S. citizens—the vast majority–were living illegally in Texas—a Mexican province. The Mexican government had passed a law banning immigration to this part of Mexico by U.S. citizens. They came anyway and the rest is history.

We applaud those illegal immigrants, undocumented aliens, as heroes only because they successfully rebelled against Mexico and founded an independent republic that eventually became the state of Texas. Not all of those who rebelled and founded were illegal immigrants, but many were. Napoleon is supposed to have defined history as “a fable agreed upon.” Someone else declared that history is defined by the victors of wars.

Most Americans know little to nothing about conditions in the countries most current refugees being treated as criminals come from; most fail to consider that many Americans’ ancestors (mine included) came to the U.S. without prior permission and sought it here—after arriving. For the most part they were not treated as criminals. Most Texans do not seem to remember that our many of our forefathers who took this great state away from Mexico were illegal immigrants and not even refugees.

My point is only this: the difference between “illegal immigrant” and “refugee” may lie partly, at least, in perspective and the outcome of history. Part of being a mature, reasonable, reflective person is being able to handle ambiguity and refrain from knee-jerk reactions to felt threats from outsiders. It also requires avoiding double standards—one for “us” and another for “them.”

*Note to commenters: This blog is not a discussion board; please respond with a question or comment only to me. If you do not share my evangelical Christian perspective (very broadly defined), feel free to ask a question for clarification, but know that this is not a space for debating incommensurate perspectives/worldviews. In any case, know that there is no guarantee that your question or comment will be posted by the moderator or answered by the writer. If you hope for your question or comment to appear here and be answered or responded to, make sure it is civil, respectful, and “on topic.” Do not comment if you have not read the entire post and do not misrepresent what it says. Keep any comment (including questions) to minimal length; do not post essays, sermons or testimonies here. Do not post links to internet sites here. This is a space for expressions of the blogger’s (or guest writers’) opinions and constructive dialogue among evangelical Christians (very broadly defined).

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