Immigrant or refugee?

Jul 17, 2014 by

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There’s a moment in The Grand Budapest Hotel that struck me as particularly poignant social commentary. For the sake of not spoiling any of the plot, I’ll speak as generally as I can.

Gustave, left, and Zero

Gustave, left, and Zero

Zero has just done something particularly helpful for Gustave, but he’s forgotten a few things that Gustave really would have appreciated. Flustered, Gustave says, “I suppose this is to be expected back in . . . where do you come from again?” Zero answers and Gustave goes on a bit of a rant, asking (rhetorically) why Zero would leave his culturally backward homeland to become a “penniless immigrant in a refined, highly cultivated society that quite frankly could have gotten along very well without you.”

Zero responds by describing the circumstances that caused him to leave his homeland: war. His father was murdered, his family was executed by firing squad, and their village was burned to the ground. Those who survived, like Zero, were forced to flee. “I left because of the war.”

Humbled, Gustave says, “I see, so you’re actually more of a refugee in that sense?”

“Truly,” says Zero, proudly.

Gustave, who has to this point been nothing but supportive and protective of Zero, then profusely and genuinely apologizes for himself and on behalf of the institution which he represents: the hotel which employs them both and unites them in a vocation.

Recent discussions around the massive influx of children from various Central American nations crossing into the United States have used, exclusively as far as I’ve seen, the language of “immigrant.”

The United States doesn’t seem to have the word “refugee” in its current political lexicon, but it strikes me that if we did, perhaps we could talk publicly in ways that more accurately reflect the reality of the situation, and in ways that are more compassionate to the children coming into this country “illegally.”

My own governor, Terry Brandstad, has said he doesn’t want any of these children sent to our state because it might “send the signal to send . . . children to America illegally.”

It’s fairly straightforward political philosophy that laws do not encompass the totality of its society’s morality, and that laws even sometimes lag behind morality and must therefore be changed to adequately reflect what the society deems to be for the good.

Relying on the term “immigrant” and using slavish, unimaginative conceptions of the law in the situation with these children is ignorant.

Like Zero, they’re more often than not leaving their countries because of war. They’re leaving because they seek a stable society in which to live, and not die, and to perhaps even flourish. They would more accurately be described as political refugees.

While my governor did say he wants empathy for these children, we can do better than a cheap lip-service empathy (which is not true empathy). How about we show concrete compassion for these children and continue Iowa’s fine legacy of being a welcoming state for refugees?

(Also, read my friend Dora’s poetic response: “What Mother Among You?“)

Brian R. Gumm is a bi-vocational minister in the Church of the Brethren. Based in Toledo, Iowa, Brian works in educational technology for Eastern Mennonite University and is exploring church-planting and community peacebuilding initiatives in his local community. He writes at Restorative Theology, where this blog post originally appeared.


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  • Rainer Moeller

    Well, in Europe “refugee” is used very often, because there are particular international laws for the sake of “refugees”. Only, this implies that one has to admit that not every immigrant is a “refugee”. One has then tried to broaden the term in order to include all people as “economic refugees” who come because the life standard in the Western world is higher than in their homeland, but such conceptual tricks usually lead to a deterioriation of the original concept on the long run and can’t make the basic question disappear: If the person is realy apt to lead a productive life in the West, why is he/she not apt to do this in his/her homeland? Or the other way round: If the homeland has only a restricted number of productive working positions to offer – isn’t this the case in the Western countries, too?