What we talk about when we talk about immigrants

Girls with Bubbles
One of these girls may create the next Google or Yahoo! But in the summertime, they’re just going to be children and play with bubbles in Buffalo, NY.

Migrant to some Americans conjures up a mental image of Jacob Riis’ How The Other Half Lives and that 10th grade English teacher who was passionate about Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men to a mental soundtrack of Woody Guthrie songs and a dry mouth in sympathy for the Dust Bowl. In the 1930s, economic and environmental conditions drove many farmers, tenant and independent, from the plains states to California in hopes that the arable land and mild climate there would provide work. Across the country at that time, unemployment hovered at 30 percent.

Migrant workers and California continued to go hand in hand in American consciousness, with the Okies – some 20 percent of those traveling to California were from Oklahoma, but the whole exodus was nicknamed “Okies” – being replaced by Anglo-Mexican and Mexican seasonal farm workers.

Recent events in the Middle East and Asia have brought ‘migrant’ to the fore of media use, depicting a much larger mass of people traveling from one place to another. The mass exoduses from regions of conflict and tyranny are pouring people into new spaces, and media is searching for the right terminology. As Ra’ad Al Hussein, the High Commissioner for Human Rights, recently pointed out, the list of countries repressing civil rights is so long that the UN has stopped listing them.

  • A migrant, according to Websters’,  is “one who moves regularly to find work,” or one who migrates, moves from one place to another.
  • An émigré, according to the OED, is one “who has left their own country in order to settle in another, usually for political reasons.”
  • Immigrant, according to Princeton’s WordWeb, is defined as a “person who moves to a foreign country in order to live there permanently.”
  • In 1951, the United Nations defined the word refugee as one “owing to well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country; or who, not having a nationality and being outside the country of his former habitual residence as a result of such events, is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to return to it.”

Al Jazeera, The Washington Post and other media outlets have decided to use refugee when talking about the mass of people currently in crises and basically stateless as migrant denotes something almost voluntary and reduces the danger the people trying to reach Europe and US are fleeing. On the other side of the issue, the BBC remains true to migrant, as most of those trying to reach Europe or the US have not reached their final destination. Sadly, an editor for the BBC had to explain that is why boats and trucks were filled with dead migrants, rather than dead refugees. It’s interesting to note, that despite the ongoing debate about what to use, and the attention played to these words, pols, including David Cameron, the UK Prime Minister, can not help but step in $%it when talking about the crisis.


The US government refers to any of these people who end up in the United States as non-natives or foreign born. There is really no lingua franca in terms of how we refer to someone not born to United States citizens beyond foreigners.

“We’re still wrapping our head around what we mean when we use these words,” said Eva Hassett, Executive Director of International Institute of Buffalo. “Our lexicon has not caught up yet.”

The International Institute works to settle those newest arrived to Buffalo, NY. They start working upon arrival, as people are allocated to Buffalo through federal programs. Even entries allowed into the US has an allocation, during 2015, 70,000 people from other countries will arrive and seek to build lives in the US. Secretary of State has announced that number will rise to 100,00 by 2018, in response to the current global crisis.  As of the 21st of October, The UNHCR has stated that more people will seek shelter in Europe in October than reached its shore in September.

Google Trends looks at the news headlines using the words Migrant (blue), Refugee(red), Immigrant (yellow)
Google Trends looks at the news headlines using the words Migrant (blue), Refugee(red), Immigrant (yellow)

Refugee and migrant both come with a certain stigma attached. Refugee has become synonymous with those who live in refugee camps, a hardscrabble life. I ran into that when interviewing the dynamic Nadeen Yousef on her experience arriving in Buffalo from Iraq for an article published by PassBlue this week. Her journey, made with her husband and four children, took 8 years. Yousef and family left Iraq for Syria, when civil war broke out in Syria, they moved to Turkey. In Turkey, they were contacted by the UN and offered the chance to get to the US, the caveat being they had to return to Iraq to travel to the US.

I asked Yousef if her family had ever lived in a refugee camp in any of these places, and her response reflects the true story of immigration. She is a trained pastry chef, a French trained pastry chef, who speaks several languages. Her husband was a restaurateur in Iraq. Now both work at grocery stores in Buffalo. She left a comfortable life to try and make sure her children had a life.  Her answer was so spirited that people stopped, turned, and listened.

“We do not all go to camps. Seventy percent of refugees are [financially stable]. We leave not because we are poor, but because if we stayed, we would die.”

Those arriving in Buffalo are contributing to the economy almost immediately, or at the least have the skills to contribute. A study by the Partnership for the Public Good found that the jobs most often taken by immigrants, as of 2010, were:

  • Post -secondary teachers
  • Nursing, psychiatric, and home health aides
  • Physicians and surgeons
  • Miscellaneous assemblers and fabricators
  • Registered nurses
  • Computer software engineers
  • Janitors and building cleaners
  • Cooks
  • Laborers and material movers
  • Other production workers

The PPG study found that, as of 2000, while 23 percent of US born population of the Buffalo region had a college degree, almost 50 percent of the immigrant population age 25 or older had a bachelor degree, or higher.

This is what Nadeen Yousef explifies. As Ben Bissell, Executive Director of WEDI, which has worked closely with Yousef setting up a small housing ware boutique, said: “She is exceptional . . . She works at Wegmans, runs her own business, and is managing another vendor’s business while they are out of country. In my personal opinion, she epitomizes entrepreneurial character.”

This benefit is also seen on a national level. According to the Small Business Association, foreign-born people are 30 percent more likely to start a business than “non-immigrants” (like the way they turn the negative onto the natives in a subtle “how do you like dem apples way?”) and 18 percent of small businesses owners in the US were once immigrants. In 2007, according to the Fiscal Policy Institute, small businesses owned by former immigrants provided 4.7 million jobs to US workers. Immigrants have started some of the largest companies in the country. Did you use Google today? That was started by an immigrant, as were eBay, Yahoo!, Intel and Sun Microsystems.

“The immigration story, despite the different points of departure, are not that different from what drove our ancestors to come to America.” said Hassett. “People looking for a better lives for their families. “

Sadly, even someone like Yousef has run into a universal condition that any media outlet would define the same. She wells up with tears when describing the few people she has met in the US who have rebuffed and even insulted her or her family. Xenophobia needs no op-ed.

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