Why the Term ‘Refugee’ Matters for American Immigration

John Moore/Getty Images

John Moore/Getty Images

What is a refugee? It depends who you ask; and, perhaps more importantly, the answer hinges upon why you’re asking. The word itself has humanitarian connotations; it represents the idea of an individual seeking shelter from crisis and violence. But the moment there is a legal motivation to your query, it becomes clear that refugee is a term with far more specific definitions. Specifically, refugee is the legal foil to asylum-seeker. An asylum-seeker is a legal off-switch. A refugee is an on-switch, with its power source being one of political and legal authority in an immigration court.

Asylum-seeker versus refugee

Basically, an asylum-seeker is a refugee without legal proof and confirmation of his or her reason for fleeing a given home state. A refugee is in a confirmed and recognized legal position that a court must consider before deporting the individual. The difference between the two, and the question of what to do when someone is deemed a refugee and in what numbers this can be applied, is particularly relevant given the mass influx of unaccompanied minors across the southern border of the United States.

The U.S. Department of State has two organizations, the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP) and the Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration (PRM), which take their resettlement and refugee definitions from an overarching international code. This code is provided by the UNHCR, or the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. This is the policy behind the practicalities of U.S. refugee and immigration considerations. “Determination as a refugee under UNHCR’s mandate, with very few exceptions, is a precondition for resettlement consideration,” reads the UN’s document on the issue. It then goes into what criteria refugees must meet under said mandate.

Two categories

Two “categories of persons” fall within the UNHCR mandate. The first is a narrow rule which holds that “a person who … owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of nationality and is unable, or owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country.” This article generally tends to be a worse fit for those children applying for refugee status in the U.S. The second category covers those who are fleeing “owing to serious and indiscriminate threats to life, physical integrity or freedom resulting from generalized violence or events seriously disturbing public order.”

When you get to the practical side of things, you have children and families coming en mass into the U.S., being easily caught, and then detained. Once detained, many apply for asylum pending potential categorization as a refugee, at which point they’re connected with Resettlement Support Center. The USRAP resettled more than 58,000 refugees in 2012, according to Department of State. According to RT, 65 percent of those unaccompanied minors who asked for asylum from the U.S. government were given it, meaning that immigration courts are struggling with the huge numbers of hearings and legal consideration so many individual cases demand.

Given so many of the children — and parents bearing children — are fleeing gang violence and drug cartels, these children fit the criteria. But proving this on a case by case basis is difficult. Realistically, there’s an argument to be made for refugees to be considered “prima facie,” or as a group. After all, as the UNHCR points out, “the efficiency of the asylum system is key. If the asylum system is both fast and fair, then people who know they are not refugees have little incentive to make a claim in the first place, thereby benefiting both the host country and the refugees for whom the system is intended.”

What Obama thinks

President Barack Obama, and others who criticize the Obama Administration for being soft on immigration, argue that for this exact reason it must be made clear that all immigrants will not be given a pathway to remain in the United States. But rule of law and humanitarian ethics demand that cases that would fall within the criteria of asylum and refugee status be considered. Ultimately this leads to conflicting goals, and realistically prima facie is an ill-affordable scenario for the United States — and politically completely nonviable — as a method for considering the busloads of unaccompanied minors. Still, the number of children have reached beyond the 50,000 mark, and additional funds are being allocated to deal legally and physically with the needs they present.

While solidifying the border has become a heavy item in the news, and an especially popular topic among the GOP, efforts to target the root of the problem — poverty, violence, and gang intimidation within individuals home countries — are vital in handling normative and humanitarian demands these children present.

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