Reflecting on International Migrant’s Day

Today, December 18, is International Migrant’s Day. While some may associate the word “migrant” next to the word “crisis” and have visions of squalid conditions at detention facilities near the US southern border or parents with no hope left than to take their kids on a rickety boat to cross the Mediterranean Sea, we forget that migration is an entirely human endeavor that has shaped world history for millennia and our country’s history since its founding.

From the slaves forcibly brought to our shores from West Africa to the Irish who fled persecution, from the Vietnamese boat people fleeing the communist takeover of their country to Eastern Europeans fleeing their harsh political contexts during the Cold War, all have helped weave the fabric that is America. People fleeing war or repressive regimes, and those who wanted to get a shot at the American Dream, all have contributed to making America the country — and the economy — that it is. In fact, unless your ancestors were part of a Native American tribe, you too are part of this vibrant and colorful American immigrant tapestry.

Admittedly, I’m pretty biased. I came to America as a political refugee during the Cold War. Perhaps that’s why my heart aches for today’s migrants and the Americans who turn their backs on them, despite their own immigrant backgrounds.

But who are today’s migrants, refugees, and asylum seekers and what is driving them to come to the United States? And what do these categories even mean? Let’s take a closer look.

A refugee is someone who has been forced to flee his or her country because of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group.

Most refugees flee to countries neighboring their countries of origin, but a small number of the world’s most vulnerable refugees qualify for resettlement to third countries like the United States, Canada, and Australia. The US has a long history of being the world’s largest resettlement country, with the world’s most thorough refugee vetting process.

Take Habiba; she and her family fled their home in Angola because of the war there when she was just two years old. For eight years, her father was a single parent to six kids bouncing around African refugee camps. After suffering xenophobic attacks in South Africa in 2008 and fearing for their lives, Habiba and her family applied to the United Nations for resettlement. After another five years of waiting, they finally got approved to resettle in the US where they were able to rebuild their lives from nothing. She wasn’t able to finish her education in Africa, so she went to school here to become a midwife while her husband worked night shifts to support their family. Today, she gets to live through her passion of helping others in her community working at Minnesota Council of Churches as a Community Navigator.

An asylum seeker is someone who is seeking international protection from persecution in his or her home country, but whose claim for refugee status is in the process of being decided.

Unlike resettled refugees who sought refuge elsewhere and are later assigned to the US, asylum seekers are already in the US or have arrived at the border or airport to apply for protection. Their cases face an equally rigorous vetting process.

Take Tariq, a fitness coach in the Washington, DC area. Traveling from Syria to the US in October 2011 for a work conference, Tariq’s stay was only supposed to be only two weeks, but as the conflict in his home country was spreading, he feared for his life and made the difficult decision to not return home. With only $1,000 and the clothes he packed for the conference, he applied for and received asylum. While it hasn’t been easy here, he’s worked very hard. Living in safety in the US allows him to build a life for himself without fear of persecution based on his identity.

When a disaster happens or a war breaks out, the Secretary of Homeland Security may designate nationals of certain foreign countries as eligible for something called Temporary Protected Status (TPS) when circumstances in their countries of origin prevent them from returning safely.

These conditions include ongoing armed conflict, an environmental disaster or epidemic, or other extraordinary and temporary conditions. Unlike refugee status, which is granted based on an assessment of an individual’s circumstances, TPS is available based on the overall situation in the country of origin. TPS holders can lawfully reside and work in the US; however, they are not eligible for a green card or permanent residency. They are essentially in limbo and if their country’s TPS designation is terminated, they must leave the US and return home.

Take Claudia, a poet living in Virginia since she was a little girl. Fleeing to the US at a young age from the conflict in El Salvador, a country where one woman has been killed on average every day this year, she fears that just being a woman would be enough to get her killed if she were forced to return. Currently, Claudia has TPS and such tremendous gratitude for the US — a place that she lived in safety both during her childhood and now adulthood life. Being an educator and a poet, she believes to shape a nation’s future, its people must have training in love, literature and politics.

An immigrant is someone who decides to move to a foreign country for permanent residence. Immigrants often go through a lengthy legal process and eventually become citizens.

For example, this includes people who come to the US through work-sponsored visas. This term is often used interchangeably with migrant, which is anyone who moves, including across borders, irrespective of the reason for migration or legal status.

Take Ramon* and Pedro*, who came to the US from Mexico in April with visions of a land of opportunity: bountiful fields that would provide hard but satisfying work and help supplement their families’ incomes back home. They were recruited in Mexico by agricultural contractors who took them through the process of applying for H-2A visas, wanting to make sure they came to the US to work legally through a visa. Working on farms in North Carolina that supply supermarkets like Whole Foods, Ramon and Pedro deal with exploitation and demanding physical labor on the job. Instead of hourly wages, they receive a piece rate of $1 per bucket of produce picked, which means that in order to earn $100 a day, they have to put in enough hours, sometimes skipping breaks or meals, to fill 100 buckets. But some days there’s not enough food to harvest, so they earn only a few dollars.

Every single day, individuals and families around the world are on the move. Some are forced to leave their homes in search of safety, some are simply looking for a better life. Their journey to safety is often long, arduous, and uncertain. Crossing borders and oceans, they set their sights on Lady Liberty and put their hopes and dreams in the United States of America, a country founded by immigrants and enriched by those who have arrived on its shores.

If they are lucky enough to arrive here, they call upon an American tradition of offering safety and opportunity to vulnerable people around the world. And they do what generations before them have done — ask for the chance to live a life of dignity in the US, free from want and fear. So their kids can go to school. So they can work. So they can strengthen our communities.

On International Migrants Day, let’s take a moment to reflect on our migrant past, and put ourselves in the shoes of today’s migrants.

Learn more about migrant rights and other issues that are part of Oxfam’s Dignity for All agenda and join our efforts.

*Names have been changed to maintain privacy

By Laura Rusu, Oxfam America media manager and former refugee — for December 18, International Migrants Day.

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Oxfam America

Oxfam America

We’re a global organization working to right the wrongs of poverty, hunger, and injustice.