Refugee Or Immigrant? Or Does It Matter?

Thomas F Campenni
4 min readJun 27, 2018


Refugee or immigrant…legal or illegal. Are these the questions we should be asking ourselves? What do those terms mean and are they relevant?

President Trump’s alma mater Penn’s Wharton School’s most recent study on the effects of immigrants on the U.S. economy states that there is little evidence of jobs being taken or wages being reduced for the native born. According to the study, low-skill immigrants are imperfect substitutes for most jobs in the American economy. They are more likely to spur the development of new types of jobs. The study goes on to state that immigrants pay more in taxes than they receive in services.

These same conclusions have been replicated in other studies. Therefore, animus toward the foreign born has more to do with fear of differences than for economic reasons. From colonial times, when Benjamin Franklyn railed against the influx of German speakers, to today, the rhetoric has remained remarkably constant. Keep the foreigners out!

Many Americans of Irish, Italian or Eastern European descent have the audacity to claim that their forebears arrived legally to American shores. It wasn’t until the 1880s that the federal government had laws regulating immigration. States had tried to do so after the Civil War, but the Supreme Court ruled in 1875 that immigration policy was the purview of the Federal Government alone.

In 1882, the Chinese Exclusion Act was the first time that a nationality was barred from U.S. entry. But, if you were from Europe, the only prerequisite was that you could afford passage. So, it was easy to qualify. It wasn’t until 1924 that a quota system was introduced limiting immigrants.

Up until the 20th century, whether you were fleeing because of religious or political persecution, economic opportunity or had wanderlust it was easy to come and stay in America. You could bring your entire family. There was no difference between being a migrant or a refugee, no passports required. In fact, passports were not universally issued until World War I.

The current crisis on the U.S. southern border has brought confusion between the terms immigrant and refugee. Since the 1980 “Refugee Act,” there is a clear definition under law of the meaning of a refugee. The people coming across the border from Central America would meet that definition. They are fleeing because of fear for their life or the life of their children. They are not coming for economic reasons or to be reunited with relatives.

Currently about 15% of the U.S. population are immigrants. I am the grandson of immigrants, as is President Trump, who is also the son of an immigrant — his mother. The difference between our ancestors and those from Honduras is a matter of skin tone and national origin. Not something that, in my opinion, should matter. The people from Central America are no more an infestation than those from Europe a century ago.

I have grown up and lived most of my adult life among people born outside the U.S. I am still waiting to meet one who came here for the “welfare.” The clear majority of foreign born “Americans” get up in the morning and go to work just like native born “Americans.” In fact, study after study proves that immigrants or refugees start businesses, creating jobs at a higher rate than the native born. They also statistically commit fewer crimes.

It has been my experience that assimilation comes relatively quickly, usually within the first U.S. born generation. As I write this, I am sitting next to a Chinese family at LaGuardia Airport. They are waiting to board a plane to Orlando. The mother and father are speaking Chinese while the children answer in English.

And isn’t that what America is supposed to be about? The American pageant is the story of many nationalities becoming one. There should be no place for those that believe that people from “there” are different than “real” Americans.

So, immigrant or refugee is not material. Americans are not just citizens of the United States but adherents to an ideal that few other nations share. Our better angels need to come to the forefront. All people can become Americans and that is our strength. The moment that is no longer the case, we will cease to be Americans. We will be just a bunch of tribes inhabiting a geographical area.

Image Courtesy Of Skeeze
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Thomas F Campenni

Currently lives in Stuart Florida and former City Commissioner. His career has been as a commercial real estate owner, broker and manger in New York City.