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Understanding immigration terms

Immigration is a hot topic in the news lately. We have put together a short guide to basic immigration terms and their legal definitions so you can follow the conversation:

Alien: According to the USCIS, United States Citizenship and Immigration Services, an alien is any person who is not a citizen or national of the United States.

U.S. Citizen: U.S. citizens are protected by the U.S. government, abide by its laws, and enjoy the highest rights and privileges, including the ability to vote. An individual can become a U.S. citizen by birth or by naturalization. Anyone born in the United States, Puerto Rico, Guam or the U.S. Virgin Islands, or anyone who has at least one parent born in those locales is considered a U.S. citizen by birth. Any adult permanent resident who goes through the naturalization process or, under certain circumstances, any minor who has at least one parent who is naturalized, can also be considered a U.S. citizen.

U.S. National: A U.S. national is any person who owes allegiance to the United States. All U.S. citizens are U.S. nationals, but not all U.S. nationals are U.S citizens. Historically, anyone born or residing in territories acquired by the United States were considered non-citizen nationals, however presently, that term applies only to people born in American Samoa or Swains Island. While they are afforded many of the same benefits and protections as citizens, non-citizen nationals are not able to vote in federal elections, such as the presidential election.

Permanent Resident: Informally called a green card holder, a lawful permanent resident is a person who is approved to live and work in the United States for an unlimited amount of time until you decide to naturalize as a citizen, or you get your status removed for different reasons. Permanent residence is the first step toward citizenship via naturalization. The physical green card must be renewed every ten years. Similar to non-citizen nationals, permanent residents are not able to vote in the presidential election.

Illegal Alien/Illegal Immigrant: Considered to be offensive or inaccurate terms by many people, illegal alien and illegal immigrant are used to describe a person whose legal status is not compliant with U.S. immigration law, meaning he or she does not have permission to enter, remain, live, or work in the United States. A preferred and more politically-correct term to use is an undocumented person.

Nonimmigrant: This term is used to describe an alien who is granted permission to come to the U.S. temporarily including for the purpose of tourism, study, business or medical care.

Visa: A visa provides the right to enter the United States, usually as a passport stamp with an expiration date depending on the person’s country of citizenship. A visa can be exchanged for a status upon entering the country, as you might see with a permanent resident, or it can be used to cover to a temporary stay, as with a student or tourist. The State Department has a full list of the types of visas.

Sponsor: Also called a petitioner, a sponsor is a person or employer who signs a visa petition to bring a family member or employee to the United States.

Deportation: The act of sending an alien back to their country of origin. The preferred and more accurate legal term is removal, which came into legal usage in 1997.

Travel Freeze: When a country’s government prohibits a foreign person from entering or remaining in the country.

Asylum: Legal protection granted to a foreign-born person in the United States who has experienced or will face persecution in their home country which will allow them to remain in the country.

Refugee: A person who has been forced to flee his or her country because of persecution, war, or even violence.

There are many nuances and complexities in immigration law, so you may want to ask a lawyer, if you have questions or concerns about your specific situation.

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