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HomeLocalAround the ArchdioceseIn the immigration conversation, language matters

In the immigration conversation, language matters

Hundreds of people are pouring into Denver from the southern border, which rightfully begs the questions: Who are they? And more importantly, how can we help?

In the mad dash to find ways to help, to spread the word, and to address the needs of our brothers and sisters, it seems terms like migrant, immigrant, asylum seeker and refugee are being thrown around interchangeably, despite these terms having different and distinct meanings.  So, are they migrants, immigrants, asylum seekers, refugees?

As Catholics, we know the dignity of the human person and the need to protect that dignity in the words we use as well as the actions we take. As Pope Francis has taught:

“God’s plan is essentially inclusive and gives priority to those living on the existential peripheries. Among them are many migrants and refugees, displaced persons, and victims of trafficking. The Kingdom of God is to be built with them, for without them it would not be the Kingdom that God wants. The inclusion of those most vulnerable is the necessary condition for full citizenship in God’s Kingdom. . . If we want to cooperate with our heavenly Father in building the future, let us do so together with our brothers and sisters who are migrants and refugees. Let us build the future today! For the future begins today and it begins with each of us.” (MESSAGE OF HIS HOLINESS POPE FRANCIS

So, because of the importance of the issue, here’s a brief explainer on the difference between a migrant, an immigrant, an asylum-seeker and a refugee.

A migrant is a person who has voluntarily chosen to move to another place, even place after place, in the pursuit of work, education and new experiences. Migrants are distinguishable from immigrants in that they generally plan to move on again or back home at some point.

An immigrant, similarly though more generally, is a person who has chosen to move to another country to make a new home in that country. Immigrants may do extensive research on their new home and make efforts to learn a new language.

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A refugee is a person under grave threat in their home location or nation. They fled their homes in fear of violence, persecution or other serious suffering based on a protected ground (race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group) and are unable to return. Civil authorities have reviewed their case and have determined that they would be in grave danger if they were sent back to their home country. Once a determination has been made, refugees are then resettled across the world. During the fiscal year of 2022, 25,465 refugees were admitted to the United States from countries all around the world.

An asylum-seeker is a person who has fled their home location or nation for the same reasons as a refugee, but hasn’t been legally recognized as a refugee. Only upon arrival in the new nation, e.g. the United States, are they permitted to plead their case and request protection. They are called “seekers” because their request has not yet been legally adjudicated. Under U.S. and international laws, asylum-seekers possess various rights that nations, states, and individuals are bound to respect and protect.

Words are important and the way we speak about people, our brothers and sisters in Christ, matters. Our actions matter too, and you can help.  For more information on how to get involved and to assist the work of Catholic Charities of Denver, please visit https://serveccdenver.volunteerhub.com/vv2/ and/or contact shdvolunteers@ccdenver.org to volunteer as a Spanish-speaking volunteer to welcome families at Samaritan House.

Sources and further reading:

“I was thinking, ‘They’re going to kill us.’”







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