Glossary of Immigration Terms


Asylee:   A person who has been granted the relief of asylum in the United States due to fear of persecution in their native country for the same reasons as refugees. Immediately after obtaining asylum, asylees are authorized to work in the United States and one year later, an asylee can apply for lawful permanent resident (LPR) status.  Like all other LPRs  after five more years, the asylee can apply for U.S. citizenship.


Asylum seeker:  A person seeking refuge in the country in which he or she currently resides due to persecution faced in his/her native country. People who apply for asylum at an airport or other point of entry into the United States are detained. 

The difference between refugees and asylum seekers is that asylum seekers are physically present in the United States or at a U.S. border and are seeking permission to remain in the United States, while refugees are outside the United States and are seeking resettlement in the United States.


Alternatives to Detention (ATDs): Facing growing criticism from the public and the government, private prison companies have invested in “alternatives to detention,” a term advocates have long used to refer to community-based programs that ensure immigrants are released from detention to the community and provided with the support they need to best fight their immigration case. 

Corrections Corporation of America and GEO Group misappropriated this term, redefining it to mean lucrative programs that tag people with ankle monitors and burden them with excessive reporting requirements. When discussing these profit-driven programs, Freedom for Immigrants refers to them as "alternative forms of detention." 


Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA):   The highest administrative body within the Department of Justice that interprets and applies immigration law.  The BIA hears appeals of decisions made by Immigration Judges (IJs).  These decisions are binding unless overturned by the Attorney General or a federal circuit court.


Citizenship and Immigration Services (CIS, or USCIS):   The bureau within DHS that administers applications for immigration benefits such as visas, adjustment of status, and naturalization.  The USCIS Asylum Officer Corps makes decisions on affirmative asylum claims.


Corrections Corporation of America (CCA)/CoreCivic: One of the private corrections contractors that work with the FBI, ICE, and the U.S. Marshal Service.  CCA has over 60 facilities and incarcerates more than 80,000 people in immigration detention and in other forms of confinement.  Similar contracts are given to GEO Group, Emerald Correctional Management, and Management & Training Corp, among others.  Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) is the oldest prison corporation in the world.  It rebranded itself as CORECIVIC in October 2015.  It is a publicly traded company.  Freedom for Immigrants was formerly named "CIVIC" and we have never had any connection or relationship with CCA/CORECIVIC.  We encourage all advocates and news outlets to refer to this company as "CCA/CORECIVIC" to ensure that the company cannot dissocociate itself from its past misdeeds by sanitizing itself with a name change. 


Department of Homeland Security (DHS):   Charged with “protecting” the United States.  In 2003, through the Department of Homeland Security Act, DHS absorbed most of the former Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) and took on its duties. 

DHS split immigration-related duties among three separate agencies: (CIS) - Citizenship and Immigration Services, (ICE) - Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and (CBP) - Customs and Border Protection.


Deportation/Removal:  Expulsion of a noncitizen from the United States.  People who can be deported include noncitizens (including lawful permanent residents) with criminal convictions; visa overstays; refugee/asylum seekers; and those who entered without inspection (for example, by crossing the border unlawfully).  Once removed, a noncitizen faces legal bars for a time period that prevent his or her return or sometimes they are permanently barred.


Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR):   The agency within the Department of Justice that administers all Immigration Courts, including those inside the detention centers, and the BIA. It is a separate agency from ICE, which is in the Department of Homeland Security.  EOIR judges determine defensive asylum claims and other claims for relief from removal during removal proceedings.


Expedited Removal:   A section of 1996 laws used to deport many noncitizens without a hearing before an Immigration Judge.  Expedited removal can be imposed on people the government finds “inadmissible” at any border entry point.  Under expedited removal, individuals can be removed on an order issued by an immigration officer.  The U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) began implementing the expedited removal provisions of the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996 (IIRIRA) in 1997.


Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE):  The bureau within the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) that enforces immigration laws and conducts the apprehension, detention and deportation of immigrants.  ICE used to be part of what was known previously as the INS or Immigration and Naturalization Service.


Intensive Supervision Assistance Program (ISAP) and the Electronic Monitoring Program (EMP):    Alternative forms of detention that ensure close and frequent contact by ICE with someone granted supervised release.  Those enrolled in these programs typically must make regular visits to an ICE officer or subcontractor and check in through telephone calls.  Many people are also required to wear electronic ankle bracelets, and are subject to curfew and other reporting requirements. 

These programs are frequently utilized for people who have final orders of removal but whom ICE cannot deport (for example, because of lack of travel documents, or a country’s refusal or inability to accept an immigrant).


Lawful Permanent Resident (LPR):   An immigrant with a “green card” who has been lawfully admitted to the United States for permanent residence.  An immigrant can become a permanent resident in several different ways.  Most individuals are sponsored by a family member or employer in the United States.  Other individuals may become LPRs through refugee or asylee status or other humanitarian programs. 

LPRs have essentially the same rights and obligations as U.S. citizens with the exceptions of voting and holding certain public offices and civil service positions.  However, LPRs can be detained or deported for certain offenses, including misdemeanors punishable by one or more years in jail.  After five years (three years in certain circumstances), an LPR can apply for U.S. citizenship.


Non-immigrant:   A person who has been lawfully admitted to the United States for a specific purpose (e.g. work or study) for a temporary stay that will end when its purpose has been accomplished and the visa expires.


Parolee:  A non-citizen to whom the Attorney General has granted a temporary stay for humanitarian or public interest purposes and who can be detained at any time.  Parolee status expires after one year (renewable at the U.S. government’s discretion), and most parolees are prohibited from applying for lawful permanent residency (LPR) “green card” or citizenship.


Prosecutorial Discretion:  The authority of the Departments of Justice and Homeland Security to refrain from placing a potentially deportable person in deportation proceedings; suspend or even terminate a deportation proceeding; postpone a deportation; release someone from detention; or de-prioritize the enforcement of immigration laws against someone because it does not serve enforcement interests. 

Widely used during the Obama Administration, but has become unavailable as a matter of policy since the Trump Administration took office.  


Refugees:   People seeking protection and a safe place to live outside their country of origin who is unable or unwilling to return because of past persecution and/or a well-founded fear of persecution on account of their race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group.  Each year, a certain number of refugees are selected by the U.S. State Department to undergo several security screenings and enter the United States through the Refugee Resettlement Program. 

One year after arriving in the United States, a refugee can apply to become a lawful permanent resident (LPR), and after five more years, can apply for U.S. citizenship.


Voluntary Departure:   DHS or an Immigration Court may, in its discretion, allow a person to depart from the U.S. at his or her own expense in lieu of removal. DHS and/or the Immigration Court will set a finite period, usually about 120 days, to depart the U.S.   If the person fails to depart, they will be subject to fines and a 10 year period of ineligibility for other forms of relief.  Immigrants with aggravated felonies are ineligible for voluntary departure.


A Few Further Notes on Terminology


  • "Immigration Detention": Across the world, the term "immigration detention" is used to refer to the government practice of incarcerating human beings while they wait for a decision on their immigration case.

Freedom for Immigrants uses this term, but when referring to the actual facilities in the United States that confine immigrants, our organization uses the terms "immigrant prison" and "immigrant jail." In the U.S. context, most facilities are either literal prisons run by private prison companies or county jails that contract with ICE.

There are only a handful of government-run facilities, but they also look and feel like a prison.

This movement to refer to the facilities as "prisons" and "jails" was spearheaded by Carlos Hidalgo and Sylvester Owino, with our support. Carlos and Sylvester were previously held for years in these immigrant prisons. You can access their petition as well as read this article for more information.


  • “Illegal” or “Alien”:  Freedom for Immigrants denounces the use of degrading terms, such as “alien” and “illegal (immigrant),” to describe undocumented or unauthorized immigrants because it casts them as inhuman outsiders who come to the United States with questionable motivations.  

“Alien” is a term used in the Immigration and Nationality Act to refer to non-citizens, but it should be avoided unless used in a quote.  The term “illegal immigrant” stereotypes undocumented persons who are in the United States and suggests that they have all  committed crimes. 

Under current U.S. immigration law, entering the United States without inspection or overstaying a visa is not a crime; it is a civil violation.

 Although “undocumented immigrant” is not ideal nomenclature, we use it, “non-citizen” or “non-status immigrant” for lack of better terms.


  • “Detainee”:   Likewise, when describing someone who is currently detained, we believe that “detained immigrant/person” or “person in immigration detention” are the best terms, insofar as the discussion is actually related to their detention. 

Dehumanizing language like "detainee" serves only to reinforce the stripping of people in detention of their fundamental human rights.


  • "Migrant": The United Nations (UN) defines the term migrant as "any person who lives temporarily or permanently in a country where he or she was not born, and has acquired some significant social ties to this country."

The UN Special Rapporteur of the Commission on Human Rights has proposed that the following persons should be considered as migrants:

 "(a) Persons who are outside the territory of the State of which their are nationals or citizens, are not subject to its legal protection and are in the territory of another State; (b) Persons who do not enjoy the general legal recognition of rights which is inherent in the granting by the host State of the status of refugee, naturalized person or of similar status; (c) Persons who do not enjoy either general legal protection of their fundamental rights by virtue of diplomatic agreements, visas or other agreements." 

When referring to a "migrant worker," the definition significantly changes; the UN Convention on the Rights of Migrants defines a migrant worker as a

"person who is to be engaged, is engaged or has been engaged in a remunerated activity in a State of which he or she is not a national."

In other words, this definition indicates that a migrant worker does not refer to refugees, displaced or others forced or compelled to leave their homes.

This distinction has seemed to cause some confusion at the international level and opened up opportunities for some political factions to use the term "migrant" in a pejorative way; for example, in 2015, some Europeans began using the term "migrant" as a contrast to "refugees" to try to make the case that the thousands of people crossing the Mediterranean to seek protection are not deserving of "refugee" status, causing Al Jazeera News to denounce the term "migrant" as one that has "evolved from its dictionary definitions into a tool that dehumanizes and distances, a blunt pejorative."

Al Jazeera's position is well-meaning, but it also remains problematic, as it implies that economic migrants are less deserving than refugees, and that people drowning at sea only fully deserve empathy if they are refugees.  It went with an agenda that only wanted to discuss Syrians, and in practice tended to exclude the many non-Syrians reaching Europe, both refugees and non-refugees. 

After many conversations with the International Detention Coalition and our partners in Europe such as Detention Action, Freedom for Immigrants believes that we cannot allow "migrant" to become a pejorative term, as it is the most neutral and accurate term we have to describe any person who migrates, including refugees. 

It also reflects the reality of detention in South America, Central America, and Mexico where people are often detained at different stages of their migration journey, whether upon entering a country, leaving a country, and even when attempting to leave or being returned to their country of origin.


  • "Immigrant":  An "immigrant" is someone who has already come to live permanently in a country, as opposed to "emigrant," which refers to a person leaving their own country to settle permanently in another. In the United States, as is the case in most countries, an "immigrant" is someone who has been granted legal status to stay in a country. An "immigrant" can be considered a "non-immigrant," as defined above, if they have only been granted status to stay in the country for a limited time. 

In the United States, the term "undocumented immigrant" refers to individuals present in the country without authorization, whereas Europe usually uses the term "unauthorized immigrant."

While both terms are better than "illegal," they have come to take on some negative connotations. Many advocates in Europe avoid the term "immigrant" altogether, as it implies migration in to "our here," whereas migrant is more neutral as to point of view.