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Glossary of Immigration Terms

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Immigration law is full of words and terms whose meanings are not obvious. We’ve used many of these words in this book and you may encounter others as you use additional resources. For help in unpacking their meanings, see the plain-English definitions below.


Accompanying relative.
In most cases, a person who is eligible to receive some type of visa or green card can also obtain green cards or similar visas for immediate family members. These family members are called accompanying relatives and may include only your spouse and unmarried children under the age of 21.

Advance Parole. 
Advance Parole may be granted to a person who is already in the U.S. but needs to leave temporarily and return without a visa. This is most common when someone has a green card application in process and wants to leave the U.S. for a trip.

Alien Registration Receipt Card. 
The official name used in immigration law for a green card. The USCIS calls this document the I-551.

Asylum status.
See Refugee and asylee below. People seeking asylum status are in a different situation from refugees, even though the basis for eligibility is very similar. Those applying for refugee status apply from outside the U.S., while potential asylees apply for asylum after having arrived in the United States (for example, on a tourist visa or after illegally crossing the U.S. border).

Sworn statements that employers must make to the U.S. Department of Labor before they may petition to bring foreign workers to the United States. Attestations may include statements that the employer is trying to hire more U.S. workers or that foreign workers will be paid the same as U.S. workers. Attestations are required only for certain types of employment-based visas.


If your relative or employer files a petition to start off your immigration process, you are a beneficiary. Almost all green cards, as well as certain types of nonimmigrant visas, require petitioners, and whenever there is a petitioner there is also a beneficiary. The word “beneficiary” comes from the fact that you benefit from the petition by becoming qualified to apply for a green card or visa.

Border Patrol.
The informal name for an agency called Customs and Border Protection (CBP), which, like USCIS, is part of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). Its primary functions include keeping the borders secure from illegal crossings and meeting legal entrants at airports and border posts to check their
visas and to decide whether they should be allowed into the United States.


Citizen (U.S.).
A person who owes allegiance to the U.S. government is entitled to its protection and enjoys the highest level of rights due to members of U.S. society. People become U.S. citizens through birth in the United States or its territories, through their parents, or through naturalization (after applying for citizenship and passing the citizenship exam). Citizens cannot have their status taken away except for certain extraordinary reasons.

Consular processing.
The green card application process for immigrants whose final interview and visa decision will happen at a U.S. embassy or consulate in another country (outside the U.S.).

An office of the U. S. Department of State located in a country other than the United States and affiliated with a U.S. embassy in that country’s capital city. The consulate’s responsibilities usually include processing visa applications.

Customs and Border Protection (CBP).
See Border Patrol in “B”.
Department of Homeland Security (DHS).

A huge government agency created in 2003 to handle immigration and other security-related issues. Nearly all immigration-related departments and functions (including USCIS, CBP, and ICE) are under DHS control.
Department of Labor (DOL).

A U.S. government agency involved with many types of job-related visas. It is the DOL that receives applications for labor certifications and decides whether or not there is a shortage of U.S. workers available to fill a particular position in a U.S. company. Department of State (DOS).

U.S. embassies and consulates are operated by the branch of the U.S. government called the Department of State. Generally, the DOS determines who is entitled to a visa or green card when the application is filed outside the U.S. at a U.S. embassy or consulate, while USCIS, under the Department of Homeland Security, regulates immigration processing inside the United States.


An immigrant who falls into one of the grounds listed at I.N.A. § 237, 8 U.S.C. § 1227, is said to be removable, or in the older legal lingo, deportable. Such a person can be removed from the U.S. after a hearing in immigration court. Even a permanent resident can be removed or deported.

District office.
A USCIS office in the U.S. that serves the public in a specific geographical area. District offices are where most USCIS field staff are located. They usually have an information desk, provide USCIS forms, and accept and make decisions on a few—but not all—types of applications for immigration benefits.

Diversity visa (the lottery).
A green card lottery program held for persons born in certain countries. Every year (more or less), the Department of State determines which countries have sent the fewest number of immigrants to the U.S., relative to the size of the country’s population. A certain number of persons from those countries are then permitted to apply for green cards. Lottery winners are selected at random from qualifying persons who register for that year’s lottery. To enter, you must meet certain minimum educational and other requirements.


The chief U.S. consulate within a given country, usually located in a capital city. The embassy is where the ambassador stays. Most embassies handle applications for visas to the United States.

Employment Authorization Document (EAD).
More commonly called a work permit, this is a card with a person’s photo that indicates that he or she has the right to work in the United States. Green card holders no longer need to have an EAD.

Expedited removal. 
The procedures by which officers at U.S. borders and ports of entry may decide that a person cannot enter the United States. (See I.N.A. § 235(b), 8 U.S.C. § 1225 (b).) The officer can refuse entry when he or she believes the person has used fraud or is carrying improper documents. People removed this way are barred from reentering the U.S. for five years.


Fraud interview.
A specialized USCIS interview in which one or both members of an engaged or married couple are examined to see whether their marriage is real or just a sham to get the foreign-born person a green card.


Green card.
Actually a slang name for an Alien Registration Receipt Card or I-551. We use the term green card throughout this book because it is familiar to most people. At one time, the card was actually green in color. Currently, the card is pink. Nevertheless, people all over the world continue to refer to it as a green card. This plastic photo identification card is given to individuals who successfully become legal permanent residents of the United States. It serves as a U.S. entry document in place of a visa, enabling permanent residents to return to the U.S. after temporary absences. The key characteristic of a green card is its permanence. Unless you abandon your U.S. residence or commit certain types of crimes or immigration violations, your green card can never be taken away. Possession of a green card also allows you to work in the U.S. legally. You can apply for a green card while you are in the U.S. or while you are elsewhere, but you can actually receive the green card only inside U.S. borders. If you apply for your green card outside the U.S., you will first be issued an immigrant visa. Only after you use the immigrant visa to enter the U.S. can you get a green card. Those who hold green cards for a certain length of time may apply to become U.S. citizens. Green cards have an expiration date of ten years from issuance. This does not mean that the permanent resident status itself expires, only that the resident must apply for a new card.


I-94 card.
A small green or white card given to all nonimmigrants when they enter the United States. (The green ones are given to people who enter on a visa waiver.)

The I-94 card serves as evidence that a nonimmigrant has entered the country
legally. Before the I-94 card is handed out, it is stamped with a date indicating how long the nonimmigrant may stay for that particular trip. It is this date and not the expiration date of the visa that controls how long a nonimmigrant can remain in the United States. A nonimmigrant receives a new I-94 card with a new date each time he or she legally enters the United States. Canadian visitors are not normally issued I-94 cards.

Immediate relative.
If you are an immediate relative of a U.S. citizen, you are eligible to receive a green card. The government does not limit the number of immediate relatives who may receive green cards. The list of those who are considered immediate relatives is as follows:
• spouses of U.S. citizens. This also includes widows and widowers who apply for green cards within two years of the U.S. citizen spouse’s death.
• unmarried people under the age of 21 who have at least one U.S. citizen parent.
• parents of U.S. citizens, if the U.S. citizen child is over the age of 21.

Though the general public usually calls any foreign-born newcomer to the United States an immigrant, the U.S. government prefers to think of immigrants as including only those people who have attained permanent residence or a green card. Nearly everyone else is called a nonimmigrant, even if they are in the United States.

Immigrant visa.
If you are approved for a green card at a U.S. consulate or U.S. embassy, you will not receive your green card until after you enter the United States. In order to enter the U.S., you must have a visa. Therefore, when you are granted the right to a green card, you will receive an immigrant visa. An immigrant visa enables you to enter the U.S., take up permanent residence, and receive a green card.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
This agency of the Department of Homeland Security handles enforcement of the immigration laws within the U.S. borders.

Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS).
The name of the former U.S. government agency that had primary responsibility for most immigration matters. However, in 2003, the INS was absorbed into the Department of Homeland Security, and its functions divided between U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), Customs and Border Protection (CBP), and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

Immigration Court. 
More formally known as the Executive Office for Immigration Review or EOIR, this is the first court that will hear your case if you’re placed in immigration proceedings. Cases are heard by an immigration judge, who doesn’t hear any other type of case. USCIS has its own crew of trial attorneys who represent the agency in court.

Potential immigrants who are disqualified from obtaining visas or green cards because they are judged by the U.S. government to be in some way undesirable are called inadmissible (formerly, excludable). The grounds of inadmissibility are found at I.N.A. § 212, 8 U.S.C. § 1182. Green card holders who leave the United States for six months or more can also be found inadmissible upon attempting to return. In general, most people are found inadmissible because they have criminal records, have certain health problems, commit certain criminal acts, are thought to be subversives or terrorists, or are unable to support themselves financially. In some cases, there are legal ways to overcome inadmissibility.


Labor certification. 
To get a green card through a job offer from a U.S. employer, you must first prove that there are no qualified U.S. workers available and willing to take the job. The U.S. agency to which you must prove this is the U.S. Department of Labor and the procedure for proving it is called labor certification.


National Visa Center (NVC).
Located in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, and run by a private company under contract with the DOS for the purpose of carrying out certain immigration functions, the NVC receives approved green card petitions directly from USCIS or the DOS. In some cases, the NVC may hold onto these files for years, while the immigrant is on the waiting list for a visa. The NVC initiates the final green card application process by sending forms and instructions to the applicant and forwarding the file to the appropriate U.S. consulate abroad.

When a foreign person takes legal action to become a U.S. citizen. Almost everyone who goes through naturalization must first have held a green card for several years before becoming eligible for U.S. citizenship. They must then submit an application and pass an exam. A naturalized U.S. citizen has virtually the same rights as a native-born U.S. citizen.

People who come to the U.S. temporarily for some particular purpose but do not remain permanently. The main difference between a permanent resident who holds a green card and a nonimmigrant is that all nonimmigrants must intend to be in the U.S. only on a temporary basis. There are many types of nonimmigrants. Students, temporary workers, and visitors are some of the most common.

Nonimmigrant visa.
Nonimmigrants enter the U.S. by obtaining nonimmigrant visas. Each nonimmigrant visa comes with a different set of privileges, such as the right to work or study. In addition to a descriptive name, each type of nonimmigrant visa is identified by a letter of the alphabet and a number. Student visas, for example, are F-1, and treaty investors are E-2. Nonimmigrant visas also vary according to how long they enable you to stay in the United States.


This term has a special meaning in immigration law. It allows a person to enter the U.S. for humanitarian purposes, even when he or she does not meet the technical visa requirements. Those who are allowed to come to the U.S. without a visa in this manner are known as parolees.

Permanent resident.
A non-U.S. citizen who has been given permission to live permanently in the United States. If you acquire permanent residence, you will be issued a green card to prove it. The terms “permanent resident” and “green card holder” refer to exactly the same thing. Both words in the phrase “permanent resident” are important. As a permanent resident, you may travel as much as you like, but your place of residence must be the U.S., and you must keep that residence on a permanent basis.

A petition is a formal request to USCIS that you be legally recognized as qualified for a green card or for some type of nonimmigrant visa. It is usually filed by an employer or family member (the petitioner) on behalf of an intending immigrant or visa applicant, to start off the application process. Paper proof that you do indeed qualify must always be submitted with the petition.

A U.S. person or business who makes the formal request that you be legally recognized as qualified for a green card or nonimmigrant visa. The petitioner must be your U.S. citizen relative, green card holder relative, or U.S. employer. No one else may act as your petitioner, though some categories of people may self-petition. Almost all green card categories and some types of nonimmigrant visa categories require you to have a petitioner.

Preference categories. 
Certain groups of people who fall into categories known as “preferences” are eligible for green cards only as they become available year by year, subject to annual numerical limits. The preferences are broken into two broad groups: family preferences and employment preferences. The number of green cards available each year to the family preferences is around 480,000 and the number available in the employment preferences is 140,000. The categories are:

• Family first preference. Unmarried children (including divorced), any age, of U.S. citizens.
• Family second preference. 2A: Spouses and unmarried children under 21 years, of green card holders; and 2B: unmarried sons and daughters (over 21 years) of green-card holders.
• Family third preference. Married children, any age, of U.S. citizens.
• Family fourth preference. Brothers and sisters of U.S. citizens where the U.S. citizen is at least 21 years old.
• Employment first preference. Priority workers, including persons of extraordinary ability, outstanding professors and researchers, and multinational executives and managers.
• Employment second preference. Persons with advanced degrees and persons of exceptional ability coming to the U.S. to accept jobs with U.S. employers for which U.S. workers are in short supply or where it would serve the national interest.
• Employment third preference. Skilled and unskilled workers coming to the
U.S. to accept jobs with U.S. employers for which U.S. workers are in short supply.
• Employment fourth preference. Religious workers and various miscellaneous
categories of workers and other individuals.
• Employment fifth preference. Individual investors are willing to invest $1,000,000 in a U.S. business (or $500,000 if the business is in an economically depressed area).

Preference for relatives.
A general term for a foreign relative of a U.S. citizen or green card holder as defined in the preference categories listed above. Preference relatives and immediate relatives are
the only foreign family members of U.S. citizens or green card holders who are eligible for green cards on the basis of their family relationships.

Priority Date.
If you are applying for a green card in a preference category, your application is controlled by a quota. Since only a limited number of green cards are issued each year, you must wait your turn behind the others who have filed before you. The date on which you first entered the immigration application process is called the Priority Date. Your Priority Date marks your place in the waiting line. Each month, the U.S. Department of State makes green cards available to all those who applied on or before a certain Priority Date. You can get a green card only when your date comes up on the DOS list.

Public charge.
This term is used in immigration law to refer to an immigrant who has insufficient financial resources and goes on welfare or other government assistance. Immigrants who are likely to become public charges are inadmissible.


Qualifying relative.
A general term for either an immediate relative or a preference relative. A qualifying relative is any person whose familial relationship to a U.S. citizen or green card holder is legally close enough to qualify that person for a green card or other immigrant benefits, such as a waiver.


Refugee and asylee.
Persons who have been allowed to live in the U.S. indefinitely to protect them from persecution in their home countries. The difference between these two terms is that refugees receive their status before coming to the U.S., while asylees apply for their status after arriving in the United States by some other means. Both may eventually apply for green cards.

Removal proceeding.
Formerly deportation carried on before an immigration judge to decide whether or not an immigrant will be allowed to enter or remain in the country. While, generally speaking, a person cannot be expelled without first going through a removal hearing, someone arriving at the border or a port of entry can be forced to leave without a hearing or ever seeing a judge. If an immigrant is found removable, he or she can be deported, or forced to leave the United States.


Service Center.
A USCIS office is responsible for accepting and making decisions on particular applications from people in specified geographic areas. Unlike USCIS district offices, the service centers are not open to the public; all communication must be by letter, with limited telephone or email access.

Special Immigrant.
Laws are occasionally passed directing that green cards be given to special groups of people. When it comes to visa allocation, special immigrants are considered a subcategory of employment-based visas and receive 7.1% of the yearly allotment of 140,000 such visas. Common categories of special immigrants are workers for recognized religions, former U.S. government workers, and children dependent on a juvenile court.

The name of the group of privileges you are given when you receive immigration benefits, either as a permanent resident or a nonimmigrant. Nonimmigrant statuses have exactly the same names and privileges as the corresponding nonimmigrant visas. A green card holder has the status of permanent resident. Visas and green cards are things you can see. A status is not. While you must be given a status with each visa, the reverse is not true. You can get a nonimmigrant status by applying in the U.S., and you can keep that status for as long as you remain on U.S. soil. You will not, however, get a physical visa at the same time because visas can be issued only outside the United States. The theory is that since a visa is an entry document, persons already in the U.S. do not need them. This is important for nonimmigrants because they can travel in and out of the U.S. on visas, but not with a status. Those with permanent resident status do not have the same problem, of course, because they have green cards. If you have nonimmigrant status, but not a corresponding visa, you will lose your status as soon as you leave the United States. You can regain your privileges only by getting a proper nonimmigrant visa from a U.S. consulate before returning.


Temporary Protected Status (TPS).
A temporary status for persons already in the U.S. who came from certain countries experiencing conditions of war or natural disaster. TPS allows someone to live and work in the U.S. for a specific time period, but it does not lead to a green card.


A stamp placed in your passport by a U.S. consulate or embassy outside of the United States. All visas serve as U.S. entry documents. Visas can be designated as either immigrant or nonimmigrant. Immigrant visas are issued to those who will live in the U.S. permanently and get green cards. Everyone else gets nonimmigrant visas. Except for a few types of visa renewals, visas cannot be issued inside U.S. borders, and so you must be outside the U.S. to get a visa.

Visa Waiver Program.
Nationals from certain countries may come to the U.S. without a visa as tourists for 90 days under what is known as the Visa Waiver Program. These countries currently include Andorra, Australia, Austria, Belgium, Brunei, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, Monaco, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Portugal, San Marino, Singapore, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom. Persons coming to the U.S. on this program receive green colored I-94 cards. They are not permitted to extend their stay or change their statuses, with very limited exceptions.

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