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OnWords: Migrant, Immigrant, and Refugee


The word “refugee,” though quite well placed in a certain Tom Petty song, has become quite rare.

We used to feel warm about welcoming, as Emma Lazarus put it, the “hungry,” the “tired,” the “poor, huddled masses.”

We once liked the idea that the U.S. provided shelter for refugees, for those seeking refuge from oppression. The word “refugee” was once associated with the noble calling of democracy.

But politicians and broadcast media now avoid the word because it has acquired a very real legal status: If you’re a refugee, you’re entitled to certain benefits and protections that other new arrivals are not.

Likewise, the word “immigrant” has taken on all sorts of associations with illegality and general shadiness. Refugees deserve your pity and protection, but immigrants will steal your job.

And so we use the seemingly value-neutral term “migrant.” Like sparrows or antelope, the migrant is merely on the move. We don’t need to denigrate them or ask for sympathy. Migrants just are

But by using the word “migrant,” we also imply a permanent status: A goose might summer in Canada and winter in Texas, but her nature is migratory.

If people who are migrants share that nature, then we have no moral obligation to them; they’re transitory beings, and we need never count them as one of us.

And so the value-neutral “migrant” may be the most cruel of the three, evoking indifference to statelessness instead of solutions.