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What’s the difference between a refugee and a migrant? Plenty

November 27, 2018

ASU professor says immigration distinctions are important in understanding migrant caravan story

There’s a big difference between a migrant, who’s primarily angling to enter the United States to make more money, and a refugee, who is fleeing political or religious persecution or violence.

That’s the view of Leah Sarat, an associate professor in Arizona State University's School of Historical, Philosophical and Religious Studies, whose work explores the intersection of religion and migration into the U.S.-Mexico borderlands.

While the distinction should be obvious, Sarat says many people tracking the caravan that started in Honduras and has now reached the American border may still fail to recognize the difference between an economic migrant and an asylum seeker. That may lead them to miss the humanitarian dimension.

Sarat spoke to ASU Now about the nuances in terminology when referring to immigrants.

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Leah Sarat

Question: There seems to be a general disconnect by members of the public in how they tend to classify immigrants. Why is that, and what can be done to educate the public? 

Answer: Members of the public often view immigrants in black-and-white terms: as legal or illegal. But when discussing issues such as the migrant caravan, the reality is much more nuanced. The majority of those in the caravan plan to use legal channels to seek asylum at the U.S. border. Under this process, after entry to the United States, they are not yet documented yet not technically illegal, as they will have been processed and have pending court dates. The process may eventually result in deportation or the success of their asylum cases, but in the meantime, to call them “illegal” or undocumented is simply not accurate. 

A simple way to educate the public would be to use the proper terms when referring to migrant populations. Those who cross or intend to cross the U.S.-Mexico border without documents and seek to avoid apprehension by U.S. Customs and Border Protection are indeed undocumented. Those who present at U.S. ports of entry to request asylum are neither “illegal immigrants” nor “undocumented immigrants”; they are asylum seekers.

Q: What is the difference for those who are classified as a refugee vs. those who are asylum seekers vs. migrants?

A: Refugees and asylum seekers alike are those fleeing life-threatening danger in their home countries. The difference lies in where they are processed. Refugees seek admission to the United States from a third countryThe refugee is not yet in the U.S. but has left their original home country.. Asylum seekers request admission to the United States after they arrive within the U.S. or at a U.S. port of entry. The distinction is tricky, because in common usage, the term “refugee” is often used more broadly to refer to all of those fleeing danger in their home country.

A person cannot simply decide to apply to become a refugee. Instead, one must receive a referral to the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP) while residing in a third country. The United States has strict caps for refugee admissions — for fiscal year 2019, that cap has been set at 30,000. Within this cap, the regional ceiling for those admitted from Latin America and the Caribbean is set at a mere 3,000. The process is highly selective, and the nations from which members of the “migrant caravan” are arriving have not traditionally been priorities for the United States.

When asylum seekers present at a U.S. port of entry, the U.S. is bound by its own law and international agreements to consider the cases. The process may take months or even years, which gives people the opportunity to remain in the United States while their cases are pending. In recent years, the detention of asylum seekers has grown, although many traveling in with small children are released with an ankle monitor as they await their court dates.

A migrant is a nonspecific term that can refer to those who move within a country’s borders or those who do cross international borders. It is not specific with regard to immigration status. The situation has become complicated at the U.S.-Mexico border because many of the migrants arriving are asylum seekers, which means they plan to seek admission to the United States based on persecution in their home countries when they present themselves at the U.S. border. While their circumstances may fit the popular understanding of “refugee,” the United States does not legally categorize them as such.

Q: How does the faith community approach refugees and asylum seekers, and why do they approach them differently?

A: I believe that a more guarded approach toward asylum seekers correlates with a greater concern for order within conservative-leaning churches. Just as these churches have tended to take a more conservative line on issues such as homosexuality and transgender rights, they have tended to be less trusting of individuals — such as asylum seekers — whose status is more ambiguous, as they blur the lines between legality and illegality. Progressive churches, on the other hand, tend to be more open toward theological ambiguity, which translates to social policy. Consider the core slogan of the immigrant-welcoming United Church of Christ, “God is still speaking” — which implies that divine truths are subject to ongoing questioning and discovery. 

Not all faith communities with active refugee-ministry programs are necessarily immigrant-welcoming in a broader sense. At a 2014 conference of churches involved in refugee assistance, I recall an encounter with one woman who was deeply committed to refugee ministry through her conservative evangelical Protestant denomination. She had accompanied and worked with women fleeing unspeakable violence across the world, and spoke with profound compassion and dedication about that work. When it came to the issue of Central American families seeking asylum at the border, however, she was more guarded. The fact that these migrants’ legal status was still in limbo was a major obstacle. Reflecting on the Christian mandate to love one’s neighbor, she stated, “I can love someone from across the border.”

Q: Your book, "Fire in the Canyon: Religion, Migration, and the Mexican Dream," states that if we wish to understand people's migration decisions, we must take religion seriously. Why is that so important to understand?

A: For many of us who have no direct, personal connection to the cross-border migration journey, migration is merely an economic matter or a political matter. If we pay attention to people’s accounts of why they migrate and how they make sense of the journey, however, we find that the experience often touches upon the deepest questions about what it means to a be a human being, and what one is willing to risk one’s life for. Those contemplating the journey from Central America — whether they intend to request asylum or cross the border undetected — face limited options. Often they must choose between life-threatening danger in their countries of origin and danger due to environmental factors or violence during the migration journey.

Bringing religion into the conversation provides a counterweight to common claims that asylum seekers are merely opportunistic. A person does not engage in weeks of fasting and prayer before a journey unless they know that there is a high likelihood that they will face life-threatening danger en route, and that the risk is worth taking. 

Q: Is there anything unique about Central America that we should take into consideration when thinking about the migrant caravan?

A: The situation cannot be understood without attention to the ways in which an extensive history of U.S. military and economic involvement in the region have shaped the social and economic crises people are now fleeing. During the 1980s, for example, Salvadorans and Guatemalans sought entry to the United States as they fled authoritarian regimes backed by U.S. funding and military support. This history has contributed to the general reluctance to the U.S. government to classify Central Americans as refugees, as the U.S. government at that time would not contradict its own policies by recognizing these individuals as legitimately fleeing political violence.

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Move your way to a better night’s sleep

November 27, 2018

ASU associate professor explains why being physically active during the day can lead to a more restful night

There are myriad health benefits to getting a good night’s sleep, but doing so isn’t always easy.

Matthew Buman, associate professor in the College of Health Solutions at Arizona State University, studies the effects of sedentary behavior on health and shares with ASU Now why being physically active during the day can lead to a more restful night.

Question: What health benefits can be derived from getting a good night’s sleep and limiting sedentary behavior during the day?

Matthew Buman

Answer: It turns out that optimal sleep duration and quality, as well as getting adequate physical activity during the day, impact many of the same health outcomes, and these are numerous. Some of the most prominent ones are heart disease, diabetes and even some cancers.

We often think about sleep and activity as two very different behaviors, but in reality they are tightly connected and can be synergistic (i.e., when one is improved, the other is as well). Everyone should consider the quality of both their physical activity and sleep when they take steps to improve their health.

Q: How does physical activity support healthy sleep habits?

A: Research consistently shows that physical activity levels that meet or exceed national guidelines of 150 minutes per week of moderate to vigorous physical activity are sufficient to modestly improve overall sleep quality, particularly improving feelings of overall restfulness and number of awakenings throughout the night. This also tends to be particularly true for individuals that have mild or moderate sleep troubles as well as older adults, who also tend to report poorer sleep overall.

Of course, physical activity has a multitude of other health benefits, so as sleep improves, an individual's risk for many other diseases decreases, including cardiovascular diseases, diabetes and some cancers, to name just a few.

The exact reason why physical activity improves sleep is not fully known, but it likely has to do with the mood-enhancing effects of physical activity, which in turn can improve sleep. 

Q: For people who struggle with insomnia or other sleep challenges, can physical activity help them to sleep better?

A: It is likely that sleep can be modestly improved by physical activity, even among those with sleep disorders like insomnia. However, because the effect of physical activity on sleep is only modest, it is important that individuals with more significant sleep problems see a health care provider to address these issues. 

Q: Do people who are more sedentary during the day require less sleep than those who are physically active?

A: This is an interesting question. It turns out that those who are more physically active actually tend to get more sleep than those who are physically inactive. However, they also tend to have better sleep quality, which at times may mean that they are in bed less time, even though they are sleeping more. In other words, they spend less time in bed awake.

Evidence is now also emerging that individuals who sit for extended periods of time, independent of physical activity, also have worse and shorter sleep. 

Top photo courtesy of

Katherine Reedy