Defining Immigration Terms

By Kevin Lines

Some assume that all people who come to the United States from another country are either here illegally or have only a temporary visa. The following list explains the various categories and statuses of immigrants in the world.

Migrant (immigrant, emigrant): This general term is applied to any person who lives temporarily or permanently in a country where he or she was not born. An immigrant is someone moving into a country; an emigrant is someone moving out of a country. There are an estimated 244 million international migrants worldwide; 42 million live in the United States.

Alien: This legal term applies to any foreigner, especially one who is not a naturalized citizen of the country where he or she is living. Aliens can have some form of legal status if documented with a particular temporary visa (tourist, business, worker, student, refugee) or if they have been granted legal permanent resident status, documented by a permanent resident card, colloquially called a “green card.”

Undocumented/illegal alien: Of the 42 million aliens in the United States, 10.9 million are undocumented or illegal. Half of all undocumented aliens in the United States originally entered as documented. (In other words, these aliens initially had a legal temporary visa, but the visa has expired and the aliens are now here illegally.) The number of undocumented/illegal aliens in the United States has been declining for a decade, according to the Center for Migration Studies.

Legal permanent resident (green card holders): This term applies to foreign nationals who have been granted the right to reside permanently and work in the United States. Nearly 1 million aliens were accepted as legal permanent residents in the United States in 2016.

Decisions are prioritized based on family sponsorship, a job offer from a U.S. employer, humanitarian reasons, and selection via a green card lottery. A total of 55,000 green cards are reserved for the lottery, known as the Diversity Visa program.

There are 15 million green card holders in the United States; more than 8 million are eligible for naturalization (the process to become a U.S. citizen).

Refugee: This term applies to those who have been forced to migrate and seek asylum in a new land, either by their own efforts or by the intervention of international agencies (such as the United Nations High Commission for Refugees).

There are 21.3 million refugees worldwide. Refugees are men, women, and children who are fleeing war, persecution, and/or political upheaval. They are uprooted with little warning and endure great hardship during their flight. They become refugees when they cross borders and seek safety in another country.

In the United States, the president and Congress agree each year to a limited total number of refugees who will be accepted into the country from specific areas of the world. The total number allowed for 2017 is 110,000 refugees.

Internally displaced person (IDP): This term applies to people who migrate and leave their homes for the same reasons as refugees, but who remain within their national boundaries; there are 44 million worldwide.

Remittances: This term applies to transfers of money by a foreign worker to an individual in his or her home country. Money sent home by migrants competes with international aid as one of the largest financial inflows to developing countries. There were approximately $60 billion in remittances sent from the United States in 2016.

Dr. Kip Lines serves as professor of intercultural studies at Hope International University, Fullerton, California. He will become executive director with Christian Missionary Fellowship International, Indianapolis, Indiana, this June.

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