Identity Crisis: How Do We View Migrants?

The words we use to describe people who are migrating affects the way we see them and how they see themselves. What if we changed the language we use?

Some of us are labeled through familial relationships: mother, father, brother, or sister. Some of us are labeled by our career choice: doctor, teacher, or writer. And then there are those of us who are labeled by our legal status regarding citizenship within the country we reside. Unlike these other labels, these “legal status” labels are ones that some people are given with no say in the matter.




These are the types of labels that can define not only how others see us but what rights we are entitled to. Words matter, and though these terms are meant to be neutral, they can be the cause of racial profiling and harmful stereotypes. Therefore, it is vital that we understand what these terms mean.

  • Migration is the movement from one place to another.
  • Immigration involves someone moving to a different country with the expectation of spending an extended amount of time there.
  • Emigration represents the act of someone leaving from their native country with the intention to settle in another.
  • Asylum is something people hope to attain when they leave their country of origin and seek protection in another country due to fear of persecution.
  • A refugee is someone who was forced out of their native country to escape oppression, war or a natural disaster. Typically, refugees represent large groups of people who have been displaced.

And then there are other titles…



What exactly do people mean when they call someone an “alien”? Ultimately, an alien is someone who is “not from here”. It was originally a neutral term, but it quickly turned negative. Now the term is used to describe someone who not only doesn’t belong, but who is not welcome.

Then there's the title “illegal." These terms - "alien" and "illegal" - mean the exact same thing: a person who is living in a country without permission from that government. However, when used, these terms represent hate, unacceptance, lack of understanding, and show complete disregard for a person’s worth and what they have experienced.

A few things to keep in mind:

  1. One of the biggest common misconceptions regarding immigrants is that people think all immigrants come into countries illegally. THIS IS NOT TRUE. Often times, people come to different countries with a visa, but the day it runs out, they are no longer residing legally.
  2. People prefer to stay where they are! However, there are certain factors that pull people to a new country and others that push them away from their country of origin.
    1. Economic: Typically, people leave home to get away from a bad economic climate, and others leave for opportunity.
    2. Political: Often times, people leave their home countries when they feel their safety is at risk due to political matters.
    3. Demographic: People want to move from places with high birth and death rates to those with low ones.

Ultimately, the words we use to “label” and “identify” ourselves and others are important. Our identities as human beings mean a lot in regards to self worth, respect from others, and the rights we are entitled. And when words like “illegal” take the form of a noun, people’s dignity is stripped from them.

What if we changed the game? What if we referred to these people as “neighbors”? What would it look like if we said, “Our neighbors are leaving Syria” rather than “the refugees”. What if we called them brothers and sisters? We must remember that the way we define the titles and labels we give to people influences the way we see them. Let us be people who stay informed. Let us be global citizens who care enough about others to make sure we understand the meanings, both spoken and unspoken, of the words we use. And ultimately, let us use our words to actively reflect light, love and acceptance.


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