There is No Distinction Between “Immigrants” and “Refugees”

I don’t aim to make this blog overtly political; however, history is an inherently political subject. When I see history blatantly misused and manipulated for political gain, I think it’s a responsibility for historians to correct that. I wrote this essay a few years ago in response to seeing Dinesh D’Souza make some claims on Fox News about a so-called difference between immigrants and refugees. For a while I didn’t know what to do with it, but since I now have a blog, I figured I would post it here. Enjoy!  

Rightwing pundit Dinesh D’Souza once said on Fox News that, “America is a nation of immigrants,” but “we are not a nation of refugees.” He went on to explain that whereas immigrants want to come to America to establish a better life, refugees simply want to get out of where they currently are. As I’ll demonstrate, this is a false and, frankly, ridiculous assertion. It’s an arbitrary distinction that is being used for political ends and ignores the everyday realities immigrants have faced in all periods of American history.

Merriam-Webster defines a refugee as “one who flees from home or country to seek refuge elsewhere.” By this definition, members of essentially every immigration wave in American history would classify as refugees. To demonstrate this, we can use a simple tool of analysis that I use with students in class, the “push-pull” factor. As the names imply, “push” factors are what drive people out of their native lands – war, famine, economic, hardship – and “pull” factors are what draw people to certain areas – higher wages, political or religious freedom, ethnic connections. By focusing on push factors, we can demonstrate that essentially every immigrant wave was fleeing from local hardships, classifying them as refugees who most certainly wanted to get out of where they currently were.

Take for instance the wave of Irish immigration of the 1840s-50s, when nearly 500,000 Irish men, women, and children entered the US. This migration was sparked by the Great Famine of 1845, when a blight on the potato crop resulted in nearly 1 million deaths from starvation in Ireland. Does fleeing from starvation not qualify one as a refugee?

The designers of the Irish Famine Memorial in Boston sure thought so. You can visit this monument just a few blocks away from the Old State House. Erected in 1998, the memorial has an inscription that reads: “In 1847 alone, 37,000 Irish refugees landed in Boston, on the edge of death and despair, impoverished and sick.”


That specific term was used to describe the Irish. And by any measure, that’s exactly what they were. They came to the US because if they stayed behind in Ireland, chances were high that they would starve to death.

The photo I snapped of the Irish Famine Memorial on a visit to Boston

But we don’t only have to focus on the Irish. We can take our pick of immigrant groups that have come to America throughout history. How about the migration of Jews from Eastern Europe starting in the 1880s? They were in large part pushed out by the pogroms that followed the assassination of Tsar Alexander II in 1881, for which Jews were blamed as a traditional scapegoat. Furthermore, there were a multitude of reprisals against Jews and ethnic populations in other Eastern and Southern European countries, resulting in hundreds of deaths. Does fleeing ethnic cleansing not qualify one as a refugee?

The late-nineteenth century also saw the first significant migration from Asia, especially China. In the mid-nineteenth century China was wracked by crisis as the Qing Dynasty collapsed. The two Opium Wars, the massive Taiping Rebellion (1850-1864), famines, and political oppression killed millions. This internal strife led to a significant population of around 100,000 Chinese migrants coming to the west coast of the US. Does fleeing constant civil war not qualify one as a refugee?

I won’t belabor this point by examining every group of immigrants that has entered the US. The point remains clear that nearly all immigrants who have migrated here throughout American history could be easily classified as “refugees,” demonstrating the false distinction between the two.

Footage from the Wall St. bombing of 1920, the worst terrorist attack in American history until Oklahoma City

Some may argue that the modern refugee/immigrant issue is unique due to the risk of terrorism. But terrorism is not unique to the modern day either. In fact, during the time period in question, America was experiencing what historian Beverly Gage termed its “first age of terror.” (see The Day Wall Street Exploded: The Story of America in its First Age of Terror, Oxford: 2009—fantastic book, read it.) There was a significant fear of political radicalism compounded by events like the Haymarket Square Bombing in 1886 and anarchist Alexander Berkman’s assassination attempt of industrialist Henry Clay Frick in 1892. These radical ideologies and acts were associated with foreigners, in part because some immigrants were in fact political radicals exiled from their homelands.

Perhaps nothing exacerbated this fear like self-professed anarchist Leon Czolgosz’s assassination of President William McKinley in 1901. Czolgosz’s Polish name naturally characterized him as a foreigner, seemingly confirming the belief that foreign migrants were responsible for terrorist acts. This fear was enough to convince new President Theodore Roosevelt to advocate tighter immigration restrictions in his first address to Congress, arguing that this would curtail radical infiltration of the US.

Yet there was an issue: Czolgosz was not a foreigner. He was born and raised in Michigan, and later settled in Cleveland. He had never left the country. Just like today, tumultuous circumstances led to stereotypes of immigrants as terrorists, even when the acts in question were committed by lifelong Americans.

Leon Czolgosz’s mugshot

One should have all the facts before making a distinction between historic “immigrants” and modern “refugees.” This distinction is false. If it were 1890, Dinesh D’Souza would probably rail against the Irish, Jews, Germans, and Chinese, and unfavorably compare them to the original English settlers of Jamestown. No doubt people like him scoffed at my ancestors, who came from Italy’s impoverished southern regions. Attempting to otherize the migrants of today as somehow deviant from prevailing trends in American immigration history is unrealistic. Fleeing from war, starvation, and political oppression is a near constant theme among immigrants past and present.

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