Immigration Terms and Definitions

U.S. immigration laws are full of strange sounding terms and expressions which make no sense to anyone outside the field.  To make things even more confusing, most practitioners use abbreviations to express familiar concepts and ideas. Sometimes having a clear knowledge of the technical jargon is half the battle to understanding what is going on in a particular situation.  Here are some common terms and their abbreviations which may help you become conversant in immigration matters.


Adjustment of Status (“AOS”).  The procedure by which a person already lawfully present in the United States in nonimmigrant status (e.g., someone on a visitor or student visa, or parolee) applies for permanent residence while the person remains in the United States.  Adjustment of status changes the person’s status from “non-immigrant” to “immigrant.”

Alien.  Any person who is not a citizen or national of the United States, who is in the United States.

Apprehension.  When the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (“ICE”) arrests a person who is a removable alien.

Asylee.  A person who has been granted the right to remain in the United States on account of his or her persecution or well founded fear of persecution in his or her home country based upon the person’s race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion. 

– B –

Beneficiary.   A person who has had a family member or employer file an immigration petition on the person’s behalf.   For example, if your brother filed an immigration petition for you, you are considered the beneficiary.  Your spouse and/or children may be considered beneficiaries as well.

Business Non-Immigrant.
A person who comes to the United States temporarily to engage in commercial transactions such as conducting business meetings or researching business opportunities.  Such persons would typically enter the United States in B-1 visa status, or under an investor classification.

– C –

Cancellation of Removal. A procedure whereby a person who is in removal proceedings in immigration court petitions the immigration judge to allow him or her to remain in the United States as a lawful permanent resident.  Cancellation of removal is only available to persons who meet certain strict requirements.

Certificate of Citizenship.  An identity document produced by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services which establishes that the bearer of the document is a U.S. citizen, either through naturalization or derivative citizenship.

Child.  In immigration related matters, the word “child” has specific meanings, depending on the context.  For example, a person must be unmarried and under the age of 21 to be considered a child.  For a parent to claim a person to be his or her “child,” the person must have been born in wedlock.  A stepparent may claim a person as his or her “child” as long as the stepparent married the person’s natural parent before the person was 18 years old.  A person who was adopted may be considered a “child” if the adoption took place before the person turned 16 years old and has lived with the adopting parents for at least two years following the adoption. 

Civil Surgeon.  A licensed and experienced physician practicing in the U.S. who is certified by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service to perform medical examinations relating to immigration petitions.

Conditional Resident.  A person who has been granted permanent resident status on a conditional basis.  For instance, a person whose spouse petitioned him or her for permanent residence would receive conditional residence if the marriage has existed less than two years. 

Crewman.  A person who serves on an aircraft or seagoing ship.  Crewmen are permitted to remain in the U.S. for 29 days.

– D –

Deportable Alien.  A person in the United States who is subject to removal pursuant to any of the grounds set forth in the Immigration and Nationality Act.  

Deportation.  The formal process in which a person is removed from the United States.  Since 1997, the term “removal” has been favored over the term deportation.  Both mean the same thing.

Derivative Citizenship. Citizenship conveyed to minor children through the naturalization of their parents.  Also, citizenship conveyed through foreign born children of United States citizen parents.

Diversity Visa.  An immigration program administered by the Department of State whereby a small number of citizens from certain countries are permitted to emigrate to the U.S.   

– E –

Employer Sanctions.  Fines or other penalties which may be imposed against an employer for violating the Immigration Reform and Control act of 1986.  These violations typically include the hiring, recruiting, or continued employment of a person who the employer knows (or should have known) is not authorized to work in the U.S. 

Exclusion.  The formal process in which a person seeking to come into the U.S. is denied permission to enter. 

– F –

Fiancé visa. A type of visa given to a fiancé of a U.S. citizen to allow the person to enter the U.S. in order to marry, so long as the marriage will take place within 90 days after the person’s entry.  Also known as the K-1 visa.

Fiscal Year.  The U.S. federal government’s twelve-month accounting period beginning October 1 and ending September 30.  The fiscal year is important for those who are applying for highly impacted visa categories.

– I –

Immediate Relatives. A family member of a U.S. citizen who because of his or her close relationship, is not subject to numerical limitations imposed on citizens of each foreign country.  Immediate relatives are spouses of citizens, unmarried children who are under  21 years old, and parents of citizens who are 21 years of age or older.

Immigration Act of 1990.   One of the major revisions to the Immigration and Nationality Act   which increased the limits on legal immigration to the U.S., revised the bases for exclusion and deportation, created the “temporary protected status” classification for persons from certain designated countries, revised certain nonimmigrant admission categories, established new nonimmigrant admission categories, revised and extended the Visa Waiver Program, and modified naturalization requirements.

Immigration and Nationality Act.  The Act or the “INA,” the primary controlling statute for almost all immigration related matters in the U.S.  

Immigration Judge.  An attorney appointed by the Attorney General to act as an administrative judge for immigration hearings within the Executive Office for Immigration Review.  

Immigration Reform and Control Act (“IRCA”) of 1986.  One of the most significant revisions to the Immigration and Nationality Act.  The IRCA created a program by which long term undocumented aliens may apply for legal status to remain in the U.S.  It also created employer sanctions against companies which knowingly hire undocumented workers. 

Inadmissible Alien.  A person seeking admission to enter the U.S. who, for reasons enumerated by the INA, its revisions and amendments, does not qualify to be admitted.  Such persons are usually implicated in certain crimes, violated the terms of his or her prior visit to the U.S., or otherwise violated U.S. immigration statutes or regulations.  

Intracompany Transferee.  A person who is employed by an international firm or corporation as a manager or executive, and who seeks to enter the United States temporarily under L-1 classification in order to continue to work for the same employer, or a subsidiary or affiliate.

– L –

Labor Certification.  The formal process in which a U.S. employer who wishes to hire a foreign worker applies for the necessary certification from the Department of Labor to do so.  Generally, the U.S. employer must establish that there are no U.S. based workers available to do the work contemplated for the foreign worker, and the hiring of the foreign worker would not affect the U.S. job market.    

Lawful Permanent Resident.  A person not a citizen of the U.S. who is lawfully authorized to live in the U.S. as an immigrant.  Also known as a “Green Card Holder,” “permanent resident,” or “resident alien.”

– M –

Medical Waiver.  A type of waiver which permits a person with certain medical conditions to enter the U.S. despite the fact that such medical condition would be a ground for inadmissibility. 

– N –

Nicaraguan Adjustment and Central American Relief Act.  A provision which provides certain immigration benefits to persons from enumerated countries. The term is a misnomer because the benefits conferred by NACARA also accrue towards certain persons from Haiti and the former Soviet Union.

 A person owing permanent allegiance to a state, but is not a full citizen.  The term is sometimes mistakenly interchanged with the term “citizen.”  A citizen has the same rights as a national, but a national may not necessarily have all the rights of a citizen.

Naturalization. The process by which a person who is a foreign national is conferred U.S. citizenship.

Non-Immigrant. A person who seeks temporary entry to the United States for a specific purpose, such as tourism or business related activities. The period of stay could last for several months or even several years, depending on the type of classification the person sought.

North American Free-Trade Agreement (“NAFTA”).  A trade agreement between the United States, Mexico, and Canada whereby the countries agree to establish special commercial relationships with each other.  NAFTA is relevant to immigration law because NAFTA created special visa categories for citizens of Mexico and Canada. 

Numerical Limits.  The U.S. immigration regulations permits a certain number nationals or citizens of each country or region in the world to come to the U.S. as an immigrant for each fiscal year.  If the number of applicants for immigration benefits for a country exceeds the quota which the country is allotted during the fiscal year, the country is said to have reach its numerical limits.  The number of applicants who go over the current fiscal year’s numerical limits are pushed to the following year’s quota.

– O –

 For immigration purposes, the definition of an “orphan” is complicated and depends on the particular circumstances of the child in question.  A child may be considered an orphan because of the death or disappearance of, abandonment or desertion by, or separation or loss from, both parents. The child of an unwed mother or surviving parent may be considered an orphan if that parent is unable to care for the child properly and has, in writing, irrevocably released the child for emigration and adoption. The child of an unwed mother may be considered an orphan, as long as the mother does not marry, and as long as the child’s biological father has not legitimated the child.  

– P –

Parolee.  A parolee is a person who is permitted to enter the United States for humanitarian reasons, or when that person’s entry is determined to be for significant public benefit.  Parole is temporary and does not confer any type of immigration benefit. 

Port of Entry.  A city or location in the United States or its territories where a person may lawfully enter the United States.

Priority Date.  The date on which an immigration petition was filed with USCIS.  Priority dates determine the order in which a person may receive an immigration visa.   

– R –

Refugee.  Any person who is outside his or her country of nationality who is unable or unwilling to return to that country because of persecution or a well-founded fear of persecution based on the person’s race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion.

 The administrative process by which a person is expelled from the United States.  Formerly known as deportation. 

– S –

Sponsor.  The person who petitions for immigration benefits for another.   Also known as the “Petitioner.”

Stateless. Without citizenship or nationality.  The condition of statelessness occurs in the rare situation when the person’s government ceases to function or is no longer recognized by the international community.

 A non-immigrant class of admission to the United States for persons who wish to pursue a full course of study in an academic, vocational, or trade program.  Also known as F-1 status.   

– T –

Temporary Protected Status (“TPS”).  A basis for permitting a group of persons from designated countries temporary refuge in the United States.   Persons from countries with tremendous internal upheaval caused by natural disaster or armed conflict may qualify for TPS.  Once the condition which forms the basis for TPS goes away, the person must return to his or her home country.

Treaty Trader or Investor.
 A foreigner who is permitted to live in the United States under the provisions of a treaty of commerce between United States and the home country of the person, as long as the purpose of the foreigner’s stay is to carry on substantial trade or to direct the operations of an business in which he or she has invested a substantial amount of capital.

– V –

Visa.  A document issued by a United States embassy or consular post which permits a foreigner to enter the United States for a particular purpose. 

Visa Waiver Program.  A special program that permits citizens of certain selected countries to travel and visit the United States for a temporary period of no more than 90 days without having to apply for an entry visa

Voluntary Departure.  The act of leaving the United States without an order of removal.

– W –

Withdrawal.  The act of taking back or retracting an application or petition for immigration benefits.

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