Since Thursday, I've been noticing something interesting: most of the people calling for a humanitarian solution for child and family migrants have started referring to them as "refugees," and to the situation as a "refugee crisis." (I started noticing this after the press conference Thursday held by Senators Menendez, Durbin, Hirono and Roybal-Allard.)
Technically, "refugee" is a term that means something specific in international law, and these migrants are not refugees by that definition. But the term "refugee" makes sense as a label for two reasons:
1) In Washington, the question of "What do we do with the tens of thousands of migrants currently in custody?" still isn't being discussed directly. Instead, people are addressing the question of "Why did these migrants come here in the first place?" People who believe the migration is driven by violence in Central America are the ones pushing for a humanitarian response; people who believe the migration is drawn by "pull factors" in the US are the ones pushing for an enforcement response. And over the last couple of weeks, those two camps have settled along roughly partisan lines (at least in Congress).
So using the label "refugee" encourages understanding this as a humanitarian crisis that deserves a humanitarian response. Using the label "illegal immigrant," on the other hand, strongly encourages understanding that this is an enforcement crisis that demands an enforcement response.
2) Technically, because these migrants are entering the US without papers, they're "illegal immigrants" (at least at media outlets that use that term). But even supporters of an enforcement response to the crisis believe that many, if not most, of the migrants are here seeking legal status. And again, about half of unaccompanied children are eligible for asylum or other relief. So "illegal immigrant" (or even unauthorized immigrant) isn't the most appropriate term, either.