In elementary school I was knocked out of the school-wide geography bee in the final round, when asked for the correct word for a person who leaves one country for another. I answered "emigrant," but the scorer heard "immigrant," and I was out. There wasn't any opportunity to explain myself, and I was a bit embarrassed that I hadn't enunciated clearly enough, and thus lost on a technicality. The answer they were looking for was "refugee." I still remember thinking at the time that there wasn't enough information in the question to infer that the person was leaving under duress, and had to be a refugee.
It's strange to me that I still remember that story. It's stranger still that it has gone from a silly anecdote about the stresses of a child in school, to a very important question for us as Americans in the 21st Century.
So as North Americans, what do we call a person who has fled one country for another? If they're Syrian, we probably call them refugees. Likely the same if the are from Afghanistan, Burma, or Somalia. There are millions of people from these people living in refugee camps. Our country sends tremendous amounts of real and financial aid to the countries that are housing them. Most churches around the world pray for these people, and many try and fund solutions to meet their basic needs and address the underlying problems.
What, then, do we call the people who flee Central American countries to Texas, Arizona, and other border states? Can we admit to ourselves that we have refugees living in detention camps in the United States? Does it change our feelings about these people if they are fleeing war, gangs, poverty, sex trafficking, labor exploitation, or other atrocities? Do we stop to consider that most of these people aren't choosing a path of convenience, but are escaping a life we can barely imagine? Do we care if they are children, teens, single mothers, or families?
As Americans, it's time to stop talking about the "Illegal Immigration" problem, and start talking about how we can help these very real refugees that we work so hard to either turn away or imprison. One day, we'll each face our Father in Heaven, and I assume that eloquent discourse about whether the strangers in our midst are "illegal aliens" or "refugees" will seem kind of silly. Of course, no one is excited about having refugees in their state or country! Much worse must it be to actually BE a refugee in a country that doesn't want you there. There are no technicalities that relieve us from our responsibilities to love and care for each other; calling people by another name might ease our guilt about the situation, but doesn't change the reality of it.
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