In the biblical parable of the good Samaritan, a lawyer asks Jesus an important question: “Who is my neighbor?” That simple question demands an answer today as much as it did in the ancient world of the first century. It seems that we, as a country, have forgotten who our neighbors are; we have decided that some people are more human than others, although we would never use those words explicitly.
Nowhere is this disheartening phenomenon more evident than in our regard for and treatment of asylum-seekers. We need not bus them to other states to score political points to see the inhumane treatment of these desperate human beings, because the problem begins with the term “asylum-seeker” itself.
Few people seem to understand that there is no difference between an asylum seeker and a refugee: “Asylum is a protection grantable to foreign nationals already in the United States or arriving at the border who meet the international law definition of a ‘refugee.’” Both groups seek protection due to past persecution or a well-founded fear of being persecuted in the future because of their “race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion.”
The only difference between the two groups is where they apply for their status, which seems to be a technicality. Whereas refugees receive their status before they depart for the U.S., asylum-seekers, per U.S. law, must present themselves at a U.S. port of entry or already be in the U.S. to seek this status.
Since the terms “refugee” and “asylum-seeker” are essentially defined in the same way, it should prompt all of us to ask why we have different terms to describe them. Our Canadian neighbors do not distinguish between them — they call both groups “refugee claimants.”
And it matters very much whether we call people “asylum-seekers” or “refugees” since the term asylum-seeker seems to have become synonymous with economic immigrant. It matters whether we think they are coming because they might have a better life here in the U.S. or because it is the only way they will have any life at all.
Our country has shifted toward differentiating because, as we have seen since the Trump administration, you can, with a clean conscience, tell an asylum-seeker to go home. Our language allows us to reduce human beings to their legal status, thereby absolving ourselves of all responsibility for our neighbors in need. We prioritize processes, laws and the words that keep us from seeing ourselves in our neighbors, from exercising compassion and mercy, because then we can do what we want but still live with ourselves. Our language removes not only their plight but their humanity.
In conversations with friends who are also immigrants or children of immigrants, we make the conscious choice to use the terms refugee person, asylum-seeking person and immigrant person when we discuss these human beings and immigration in general. Though we recognize some of these terms are redundant, we use them to remind ourselves and others that we’re speaking about human beings — not pawns, not hordes, not caravans, not a humanitarian crisis. They are human beings whose dignity and worth must be respected, whose claim for asylum must be taken seriously because their imperiled lives are just as worthy of protection as any native-born U.S. citizen.
Many of us were deeply disappointed in Vice President Kamala Harris when she urged Guatemalans seeking refuge, “Do not come.” They can’t apply for asylum unless they do come to a U.S. port of entry. She was, in effect, discouraging people in danger from seeking one of the only immigration solutions available to them, according to U.S. law, discouraging them from seeking life and safety. To many of us, her words recalled the harmful attitude and policies of the Trump administration. What does it mean for the soul of our country if those in the most vulnerable situations can no longer even petition for refuge here?
The good Samaritan was called good because he took responsibility to care for a neighbor in need — someone he did not have to care about. My hope for the U.S. is that we will take responsibility for caring for our asylum-seeking neighbors in need; neighbors our own laws say we should care for.
In doing so, we will abide by the letter and spirit of our asylum laws.
Karen González is a writer in Baltimore, Maryland. She is the author of Beyond Welcome: Centering Immigrants in our Christian Response to Immigration.
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