The Importance of Recognizing Refugees Amongst Illegal Immigrants

Now in the 21st century, the US continues to encounter a dilemma that has yet to be resolved by this country or any other: immigration. Immigration has been an issue for every country at some point in that country’s history and the methods to resolve it have always been controversial. However, there has been another issue that is just as controversial to resolve and must be considered alongside the issue of immigration: refugees. The concept of refugees, just like immigrants, has been around since the beginning of civilization. Individuals are often seen as immigrants but in some cases, they can dually be considered refugees.

Not everyone illegally entering the US via the Mexican boarder or through any other means should immediately be considered or thought of purely as an illegal immigrant, rather it is possible that a small portion of those crossing the boarder who meet specific criteria, are refugees. Thus, it is important to make a distinction between a refugee and an illegal immigrant. An immigrant can be defined, for the purposes of this article, as a person who comes to a country to take up permanent residence. A person who considers him or herself an immigrant can be classified as either a legal or illegal immigrant with the latter being far more controversial (8 USCSection 208(a)). The term illegal immigrant is controversial since it criminalizes the person described, rather than the act of entering or remaining irregularly in a country. Using the term can, in some situations, have the disadvantage of prejudging the status of that person. If a person is fleeing as a refugee, international law recognizes that they may need to enter a country without authorization and it would therefore be misleading to initially describe them as an illegal immigrant (8 USCSection 208(a)). In turn, the question of what separates a refugee from an illegal immigrant becomes crucial to the discussion.

Refugees, according to the 1951 Geneva Convention, are individuals who are forced to flee from persecution. Within the US, it is any individual who is outside any country of nationality or an individual person having no nationality. Additionally, refugees are people who are unable or unwilling to return or avail themselves of the protection of their home country, due to fear of persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion (8 USCSection 208(a)). The international and legal conceptions of refugees stand in contrast to the standard American and Western mode of thinking that a wealthy and peaceful state center might attract a growing population that found its advantages rewarding. According to James C. Scott in his book,  The Art of Not Being Governed,  this mindset fits the standard civilizational narrative of barbarians mesmerized by the prosperity made possible by a king’s peace and justice. As discussed in the author’s book, this narrative does not touch upon two crucial facts:

First off, populations then and now in some countries are not always safe. The notion of safety described, can include safety from excessive crime, violence, corruption, slavery, servitude, and so on. This is evident in relevant statistics. In 2010, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime conducted a survey study focusing on homicide rates per 100,000 inhabitants of North, Central, and South American countries. Honduras held 82.1 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants followed by El Salvador (66), Venezuela (49), Belize (41.7), Guatemala (41.4), Columbia (33.4), Brazil (22.7), Panama (21.6), Mexico (18.1), Nicaragua (13.2), Costa Rica (11.3), and then the US (4.6). Furthermore, according to the Transparency International Corruption Index, 66% of the countries in the America’s are considered corrupt. A majority of these corrupt countries are located in Central and South America. The term ‘’corruption’’ is based on the abuse of power, secret dealings, and bribery. Aside from corruption, some of the most impoverished countries in the Western Hemisphere are all located in Central America. As of January 1, 2012, the following countries were amongst the poorest countries in Central America: Honduras (60% living in poverty line), Guatemala (54%), Nicaragua (46%), Belize (43%), El Salvador (37%), Panama (29%), Costa Rica (24%) (CIA World Factbook).

The second is that it has and likely will be that citizens of a country will run away due to a lack of granted freedom and autonomy. For a long period of time in early human history, it was possible for refugees to avoid civilization entirely and live within loose knit empires or in situations of fragmented sovereignty. Given the advancements and growing interconnection between societies, refugees  trying to avoid society entirely are forced to participate in their host country. Thus, they become subject to another country’s laws. Therefore it is  important to understand how US law differentiates between refugees and immigrants.

Purpose of US law on immigrants and refugees

The overall function of both US refugee and immigration law is to limit the number of individuals entering the country. However, US refugee law differs from immigration law in that the US recognizes the right of asylum for individuals as specified by international and federal law. A specified number of legally defined refugees, who apply for asylum either overseas or after arriving in the US, are admitted annually. Immigration laws are intended to enforce quotas that restrict who can come here and to keep out those who pose a threat to the american people (Bush). It is important to note that more than half the recent growth in the US labor force has come from immigration, and nearly all the future growth will probably come either from immigrants or from current workers delaying retirement. Unlike Japan and most of Europe, which face a steady decline in their working-age populations, America’s high immigration rates and relatively high birth rates among more recent immigrants, have mitigated much of that decline (Bush).

Economic impact

Regardless whether an individual is a refugee or immigrant, he will have an affect on his host country’s economy. The main argument that discourages both immigrants and refugees from entering into the US or any other country is based on protectionist economic reasoning. The general protectionist thinking against immigrants and refugees is that they will partake in a significant share of employment opportunities that would otherwise be available to natural born citizens. However, this line of reasoning ignores the possibility that given certain specific conditions, immigration can be beneficial to the host population’s job prospects (RUHS). When considering the case of  immigrants, their affects on the labor market depend on the skills of the immigrants, the skills of existing workers, and the characteristics of the host economy. The affect also differs between the short and long run when the economy and labor demand can adjust to the increase in labor supply. Within the short run, the effects of immigration on the wages and employment of existing workers depends on the extent to which immigrants have skills that are substitutes or complements to those of existing workers (RUHS). If the skills of immigrants and existing workers are substitutes, immigration will increase competition and supply in the labor market and decrease wages as touted by protectionist thinkers. The closer the substitute, the greater the adverse wage effects will be. Declining wages can, according to some, increase inactivity among existing workers depending on their willingness to accept the new lower wages. However, if the skills of immigrants are complementary to those of existing workers, then an increase in immigration can increase efficiency and potentially increase wages for domestic workers (RUHS).

Aside from expanding the labor supply, immigration can also increase the demand for labor. Immigrant workers expand consumer demand for goods and services. In the short to long run, immigration can lead to greater investment (RUHS). Both effects result in greater demand for labor and thus increase employment in an economy given certain conditions. The number of jobs in an economy is not fixed. Also, while immigration has the disadvantage of creating increased competition for existing jobs,  it can create some new jobs. The extent to which investment and labor demand respond to immigration depends on the characteristics of the economy. During an economic downturn, the likes of which the US is currently experiencing, labor demand would probably respond more slowly than during times of economic growth (RUHS).

Changes in wages and employment are not the only ways that an economy responds to immigration. There are an additional two adjustments (RUHS). First, immigration may alter the mix of goods and services produced in the economy and thus the occupational and industrial structure of the labor market. E.g. low-skilled immigrant workers may expand the production of certain products that intensively use low-skilled labor. Similarly, immigration may change the technology used for producing certain products. For example, the immigration of skilled workers from a developed economy may encourage the adoption of more skill intensive technologies, which would have an affect on labor demand (RUHS).

When it comes to refugees, the affects they have on an economy are somewhat different. As soon as refugees enter a country, they compete with the local citizens for various resources such as land, water, housing, food and medical services. Over time, their presence can lead to more demands and strains on resources such as education, energy, transportation, social services and employment (UNHCR). Refugees can cause inflationary pressures on prices and depress wages within a host country. In some cases, they can alter the flow of goods and services within the society as a whole and their presence may have negative implications for the host country’s balance of payment and undermine structural adjustment initiatives (UNHCR). The existence of a large refugee population in rural areas inevitably means a strain on the local administration. A host country’s national and regional authority would, if interested in assisting refugees, divert resources and manpower from the pressing demands of their own development and people to the task of keeping refugees alive, alleviating their sufferings and ensuring the security of the whole community (UNHCR).

However, the economic impact of refugees on host areas is not as a rule, always negative. A short term economic stimulus could hypothetically be generated by the presence of refugees and could lead to the opening and development of the host region (UNHCR). This short term stimulus takes place through the local purchase of food, non-food items, shelter materials by agencies supplying relief items, disbursements made by aid workers, the assets brought by refugees themselves, as well as employment and income accrued to local population, directly or indirectly, through assistance projects for refugee areas. The presence of refugees also contributes to the creation of short term employment benefiting the local population. Additionally, the presence of refugees, as a focus of attention, can also attract development agencies to the host areas (UNHCR).


In analyzing and understanding the difference between a refugee and an immigrant, American society can understand the affects that they have on an economy. Though there are negative affects and disadvantages for a host economy associated with hosting refugees, there are unique situations where hosting refugees could be in the economics interest of the host country . It is important to understand that not every individual is making the migration to the US for a better economic opportunity, rather some flee to the US only because this great country provides more freedom from state subjection and relative safety from crime, slavery, political corruption, excessive taxes, etc. As discussed in John C. Scott’s book  The Art of Not Being Governed,  it has been shown in history that when individuals are experiencing a lack of security, they seek to become stateless citizens. Surely they don’t experience any of the benefits of a nation-state, but being a stateless citizen is far more stable. In modern times, the closest example to this is the US. The US prides itself on being a country founded by peoples fleeing persecution. Over time the US developed into the great nation-state that it is today, but it would not have been possible without those first refugees who sought freedom from persecution and desired better economic opportunity. Though many advocate a stricter policy in regards to immigration and the hosting of refugees, it is important to recall that without the presence of either such persons, the US would not exist today.

Work Cited

8 USCSection 208(a)) of the Immigration and Nationality Act (Act), 8 U.S.C. S 1158(a))

CIA World Factbook. “Population below poverty line by country – Thematic Map – World.” Population below poverty line by country – Thematic Map – World. N.p., n.d. Web. 13 Aug. 2014. .

Bush, Jeb, and Thomas F. McLarty III. “U.S. Immigration Policy.” Council of Foreign Relations Independent Task Force Report No. 63 (2009): Print.

UNHCR. “Social and economic impact of large refugee populations on host developing countries.” UNHCR News. N.p., n.d. Web. 13 Aug. 2014. <

RUHS, DR MARTIN , and DR CARLOS VARGAS-SILVA. “The Labour Market Effects of Immigration.” University of Oxford 2 (2014): .. Print.