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How to distinguish between an immigrant and a refugee

The people from Central America who have recently come to the United States have been labeled as both immigrants and refugees. What is the difference between and immigrant and a refugee, and why does it matter which label a person receives? The difference between the two labels could be the difference between a person having legal status within the country and being forced to wait until being able to legally enter the country. How does a Georgia resident tell the difference between the two?

An immigrant is a person who chooses to move from their current country to another country. Typically, an immigrant comes with the hopes of finding financial prosperity or to escape conditions in their current country. While the United States does have a formal immigration policy, it is estimated that 11 million people are in the country without proper documentation. Many of these individuals may be subject to deportation if it is found that they are in the country without documentation.

Refugees are people who are forced to move from their current country because they have been specifically targeted or may become victims of violence if they stay. Natural disasters that cause famine or other humanitarian crises may also cause a wave of refugees to enter the country. The process of gaining refugee status can take several years and that status may not be granted unless the person is a minor or an individual can prove that he or she won't survive if sent back home.

Whether a person is labeled a refugee or an immigrant, it can be difficult to gain legal status once in the United States without proper documentation. However, talking to an immigration attorney may make it possible for those who are undocumented to attempt to obtain some sort of legal status.

Source: KSAT, "What's the difference between immigrant and refugee?", Michael Martinez and Miguel Marquez , July 15, 2014

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