Tuesday, April 30, 2019

How labels affect the perception of migrants in the United States

Guest blogger: Nancy Giesel, Masters in Migration Studies, graduate student, University of San Francisco:

In a time when nationalistic attitudes seem more common than ever in the United States, there is a certain amount of criticism that comes with supporting, representing or otherwise assisting immigrant populations. I distinctly remember talking to a conservative relative about my work with refugees and receiving the following response: “Well at least you’re working with the ones who deserve it.” This is a sentiment that I have heard repeated many times over throughout the years. The simple change of label from immigrant  to refugee completely reframes the way that the person is perceived. This is surrounded by a larger argument of what a “good” or “worthy” immigrant looks like. In this article, Tazreena Sajjad explores “the politics of labelling” in immigration policy and explores how these labels assist in the dehumanization of the migrants they describe. I would like to expand on this idea and add that the protection that comes with  refugee status, while important, should be expanded to include more migrants who are “worthy” of protection. 

While I fully appreciate the functional value of these labels and distinctions, I also question the way that these labels and categories affect the protection of people entering the United States. Although “migrant” and “refugee” are sometimes used interchangeably, I will be using “migrant” to describe any person coming to the United States who is not protected by the 1951 Convention definition of refugee. Refugees are protected if their claim falls within the 5 grounds for asylum listed in the Convention (race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or particular social group). The key difference between entering the United States as a refugee as opposed to an economic migrant is the idea of “non-refoulement.” This is a protection from being sent back to one’s home country. In other words, migrants can be deported, but refugees cannot. While these 5 grounds cover a wide array of persecution, they do not cover everything. For example, with the rise of people migrating because of economic factors, it becomes more difficult to determine where they fall under these 5 protected grounds.

            The overwhelming sentiment is that if someone falls outside of refugee protection, that it must be safe for them to live in their home country. This is not always true and creates a hierarchy of “legitimate” reasons to leave one’s home. Poverty often falls at the bottom of this list. Migrants are expected to stay in their home countries even if they are unable to work or provide for their families. For example, if someone is fleeing violence because of their religious beliefs, that person is eligible for asylum. However, someone from that same country who is fleeing extreme poverty would be considered an economic migrant. In the United States, this economic migrant is not only less protected, but also falls lower on this scale of “worthiness.” Economic migrants are generally perceived as the “bad immigrants” who come to steal American jobs, while refugees are generally perceived as people who are in need of assistance and protection. However, in the words of Mahatma Ghandi “poverty is the worst form of violence” and I believe that it should be recognized as such when it comes to immigration policy. If someone is fleeing their home country in search of a better life, no matter the reason, they should be welcomed and protected in the United States.



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