Glossary of Terms

The following is a list of commonly used phrases with very brief definitions. It is intended as a guide to help in reading other topic areas, not as a complete explanation for any of these complex topics. Another useful resource is the Note, the Citizenship and Immigration Services website also has a useful glossary section.

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Glossary of Immigration Terms

Adjustment of status: the process of applying for legal permanent residence from within the United States as opposed to applying from abroad which is called “consular processing.”

Alien: someone physically present in the U.S. who is not a U.S. citizen. Among others, the term includes: temporary visitors, legal permanent residents, and undocumented individuals. Many advocates feel this term has a negative connotation. We therefore use the term “foreign national” instead throughout the website.

Asylee: an individual who has won a claim for asylum. Asylees are eligible to work in the United States and may be able to travel internationally. One year after winning asylum, an asylee may apply for legal permanent residence, however there is currently a backlog of over ten years in processing these applications.

Asylum: a form of relief for which nationals of other countries can apply if they have suffered persecution in their home countries or if they have a well-founded fear of future persecution on account of certain protected characteristics. Persecution on account of sexual orientation, transgender identity and HIV-positive status have been found to be grounds for asylum.

Asylum Office/Asylum Officer: this is the first level at which applications for asylum are heard. The asylum officer conducts an asylum interview and either recommends approval, issues a notice of intent to deny, or places the applicant in removal proceedings. If an applicant wins at this stage, he or she never has to go to Immigration Court.

Authorized stay: the amount of time an Immigration official allows a foreign national to remain in the U.S. The date is stamped on the foreign national’s I-94. This is the date by which the foreign national must leave the U.S. or he or she will begin to accumulate unlawful presence here.

B1/B2 visa: the most common type of non-immigrant (temporary) visa to the United States. It is meant to be used for short term tourism or business (but not for working.) To qualify for this visa, an applicant must overcome a presumption of “immigrant intent” meaning that he or she must prove to the U.S. Consulate that he or she intends to return to his or her country after completing the tourism or business visit.

Beneficiary: In most applications for permanent, immigrant visas (family-based and employment based), the visa applicant is actually the family member or employer, not the foreign national. Instead, the foreign national is the beneficiary of the application. It is important to be aware that receiving immigration status in the United States is considered a benefit, not a right.

Board of Immigration Appeals or BIA: Is the administrative body that hears appeals from decisions of Immigration Judges in Immigration Court. While an appeal before the BIA is pending, the foreign national is permitted to remain in the U.S. even if he or she was ordered removed by the Immigration Court.

Bond: A sum of money which a detained foreign national posts with DHS in order to be permitted to be free from detention while his or her removal proceeding is pending.

Cancellation of Removal: a form of relief from removal (deportation) proceedings whereby a foreign national can obtain legal permanent residence if she or he has resided in the United States continuously for ten years; possess good moral character; and her or his removal (deportation) would result in an extreme and exceptionally unusual hardship to a U.S. citizen or legal permanent resident spouse, parent or child. Note, there is no longer an ability to obtain legal permanent residence by proving hardship to self.

Change of status: the process by which a foreign national applies to change from one non-immigrant status (such as tourist) to another non-immigrant status (such as student.)

Citizen/U.S. Citizen: a person holds U.S. citizenship if she or he was born in the U.S. regardless of the immigration status here of her or his parents. A non-citizen who becomes a lawful permanent resident may acquire citizenship through a legal process called naturalization. Children born to U.S. citizens abroad may also be U.S. citizens. Legal permanent resident children may obtain citizenship if their parents naturalize while they are minors. Citizens, even naturalized citizens, cannot be deported unless they committed fraud during the naturalization process.

Citizenship and Immigration Services or CIS: This is the “service” division of the newly created Department of Homeland Security. CIS handles applications for visas, legal permanent residence, employment authorization, and naturalization. Its website is very useful.

Convention against Torture relief, or CAT: allows foreign nationals to remain in the U.S. indefinitely if they can prove that they would be likely to face torture by their government if returned to their home country.

Court of Appeals: federal appeals court which has the authority to review decisions by the BIA.

Customs and Border Protection or CBP: The division of the Department of Homeland Security which patrols the U.S. borders.

Deferred Action: a minimal humanitarian status which The Department of Homeland Security can grant in cases of extremely compelling humanitarian facts (such as a life-threatening illness). The status permits an individual to remain in the United States for a limited period of time (generally two years) after which point he or she must re-apply.

Department of Homeland Security: or DHS, a Department which wasnewly created in 2003 primarily to deal with the threat of terrorism. Most of the functions of the former INS were reorganized within CBP, CIS, and ICE within DHS.

Department of Justice: or DOJ, headed by the Attorney General, this Department oversees the BIA and Immigration Courts.

Department of State: or DOS, a Department which runs consular offices abroad, which make decisions about non-immigrant visas and immigrant visas which are processed through U.S. consulates. DOS also administers the annual Diversity Visa Lottery.

Deportation/Removal: removal, formerly called deportation, is a legal proceeding through which immigration officials seek to remove a foreign national from the United States for violating an immigration law or other U.S. law. These proceedings generally take place in Immigration Court before an Immigration Judge.

Detention: the process by which the U.S. government holds foreign nationals in Immigration facilities, prisons, or jails while their removal proceedings are pending.

Diversity Visa Lottery: an annual lottery through which nationals of countries which the U.S. considers to be under-represented through other immigration channels, can apply for an immigrant visa (legal permanent residence) in the U.S. Foreign nationals can apply from outside or inside the U.S., but those who are unlawfully present in the U.S. will not be able to adjust status even if they win the lottery.

Duration of Status or D/S: indication on I-94 for certain types of non-immigrants including students and certain individuals with work visas. This means that the foreign national can legally remain in the U.S. as long as she or he maintains the status (such as student or worker) which authorized the visa issuance.

Employment authorization document: or EAD, is the card issued by the Citizenship and Immigration Services which permits a foreign national to work legally in the U.S. EADs are a benefit which accompany another status, such as a work visa, or a pending asylum or “green card” application, they cannot be applied for without some underlying immigration status.

Executive Office of Immigration Review: or EOIR is the department which oversees Immigration Judges in Immigration Court. This is a part of the Department of Justice.

EWI: or Entered Without Inspection, means entering the United States without being inspected by an Immigration official. Most commonly this means crossing the Mexican or Canadian border without having any contact with an Immigration official. A foreign national who enters the U.S. EWI generally cannot apply for legal status from within the United States, with the exception of asylum applicants and individuals with applications for adjustment grandfathered in under 245i.

Family preference system: system of immigration whereby individuals may be sponsored for immigration benefits by a qualifying U.S. citizen or legal permanent resident family member. Other than immediate relatives of U.S. citizens, once a foreign national has established his or her qualifying relationship with a citizen or legal permanent resident relative, he or she must wait for his or her priority date to be reached to complete the second half of the application for legal permanent residence.

Green Card: this is the informal term for “an alien registration card” or Form I-551. It is proof that its holder has legal permanent resident status.

H1B: this is a skilled worker visa which allows its holder to remain in the U.S. and work for three years, and can be renewed once for a total of six years.

HIV exclusion: until January 4, 2010, foreign nationals who were HIV-positive were forbidden to visit or immigrate to the United States unless they are eligible for certain narrow categories of waiver for this harsh rule. This law changed and people with HIV are no longer inadmissible to the U.S.

I-94: the small white card placed in the passport of foreign nationals when they visit the U.S. The card indicates how long the foreign national is authorized to stay in the U.S., either with a specific date by which the foreign national is supposed to leave, or with a notation such as D/S (duration of status) which means the person is permitted to remain in the U.S. as long as he or she maintains her status (such as student status.)

Immediate Relative: for U.S. immigration purposes, immediate relatives of U.S. citizens are defined only as opposite sex spouses, minor children, and parents of adult children. U.S. citizens can sponsor foreign nationals who are immediate relatives without having to wait for a visa to become available.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement or ICE: the enforcement branch of the newly created Department of Homeland Security. This is the branch of DHS which includes deportation officers and trial attorneys in Immigration Court.

Immigrant: this is a technical legal term which means a foreign national who has been granted permission to remain in the United States permanently, that is a “legal permanent resident” or “green card holder” and as such is distinguished from a “non-immigrant” who comes to the United States on a temporary visa. The term “immigrant” is often used more broadly to mean any person who is not a U.S. citizen.

Immigrant intent: the concept under U.S. immigration law that foreign nationals generally intend to remain in the United States permanently (as permanent immigrants) even if they are applying for a temporary, non-immigrant status. Applicants for many forms of non-immigrant visas must overcome the presumption that they possess immigrant intent by proving strong financial and family ties to their home country. Immigrant intent is the primary reason that applications for tourist and student visas are denied by U.S. Consulates.

Immigration Court: the administrative court which hears removal and deportation proceedings. Immigration Judges have the authority to grant foreign nationals legal status in the United States as well as the authority to order them removed (deported.) Appeals from the Immigration Court are heard by the Board of Immigration Appeals.

INS: this is the abbreviation for the Immigration and Naturalization Service. In 2003, the federal government restructured and divided the functions of the INS among the following newly created agencies within the Department of Homeland Security (DHS): Border and Customs Patrol (BCP), Citizenship and Immigration Services (CIS), and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Many forms issued by CIS and ICE still bear the logo of the now defunct INS.

Labor certification: the process an employer must go through with the Department of Labor to certify that no American workers are available to fill the job for which the employer is sponsoring a foreign national for legal permanent residence.

Legal permanent resident: status granting foreign nationals the right to reside in the U.S. permanently and eventually (if the foreign national so chooses) apply to naturalize as a citizen. Although this status is intended to be permanent, certain actions can lead to a legal permanent resident being placed in removal proceedings and being deported to his or her home country. These actions include convictions for certain crimes, remaining outside the U.S. for long periods of time, or committing immigration fraud. For in-depth information on the rights and obligations of legal permanent residence see the 2005 DHS publication Welcome to the United States: A Guide for New Immigrants.

Naturalization: the process by which a foreign national applies for and obtains U.S. citizenship. Only legal permanent residents may apply to naturalize, and generally only after they have held their “green card” for five years (spouses of U.S. citizens may apply earlier.) For more information see the DHS publication A Guide to Naturalization.

Non-immigrant visa: is a temporary visa, such as a tourist, student, or skilled worker visa. Its purpose is to allow a foreign national to come to the United States for a limited period of time and for a specific purpose, not to remain in the United States permanently.Many non-immigrant visas require applicants to prove that they do not intend to remain in the U.S. permanently by demonstrating strong economic and family ties to their home country.

Out of status: see “undocumented.”

Parole: this term has many different meanings under immigration law. It can refer to individuals who are permitted to enter the United States for a limited purpose, such as applying for asylum or to be placed in removal proceedings. It can also refer to the status that individuals who have been released from detention have.

Permanent Partners Immigration Act: The previous name of the Uniting American Families Act (see below.)

Port of Entry: The port of entry is the airport, seaport, or border crossing through which a foreign national enters the U.S.

Priority Date: for some family-based and some employment-based applications for legal permanent residence, the date on which the initial part of the application was approved, and which CIS refers to in determining whether or not a visa is available for the second part of the application process. See the Visa Bulletin for current priority dates in various resident application categories.

Public charge: most applicants for legal permanent resident status must prove that they are not “likely to become a public charge.” This means they must prove that they can support themselves through employment, assets, or family members and are not likely to require government assistance in the future. See the USCIS Guide on Public Charge for more information on what benefits affect public charge determinations.

Refugee: for refugee status, an applicant applies outside the United States and must meet the same standard of persecution as an asylum applicant. As a practical matter, it is much more difficult to win refugee status based on being LGBT or HIV positive than to win asylum.

Removal/deportation: Removal, formerly called deportation, is a legal proceeding through which immigration officials seek to remove a foreign national from the United States for violating an immigration law or other U.S. law. These proceedings generally take place in Immigration Court before an Immigration Judge.

Social Security Number: a number assigned to eligible individuals by the Social Security Administration of the U.S. federal government, primarily so that they can file taxes and pay into the Social Security system. In general, non-citizens can only obtain Social Security numbers if they are authorized by the Citizenship and Immigration Services to work in the U.S. Social Security cards can be unrestricted, or restricted, meaning its holder can only work with a CIS issued employment authorization document.

Tax payer identification number: a number issued by the Social Security Administration (SSA) to individuals or entities who are not eligible for Social Security numbers. Some undocumented individuals have successfully used these to pay taxes. There is some risk, however, that SSA or the Internal Revenue Service may share information with the Department of Homeland Security about individuals who use these numbers.

Temporary Protected Status: or TPS, is a blanket, temporary status that the U.S. government occasionally gives to nationals of particular countries which have undergone a natural disaster (such as an earthquake) or other country-wide strife (such as civil war.) The status is good for one year and allows the foreign national to obtain employment authorization. The U.S. determines on an annual basis whether or not to renew the status for nationals of the country. It does not generally lead to permanent status in the U.S.

Three year/Ten year bar: refers to a harsh change in the Immigration law which occurred in 1996 and now provides that any foreign national who accumulates more than six months of unlawful presence who then leaves the U.S. cannot return for three years. Likewise, any foreign national who accumulates more than one year of unlawful presence who then leaves the U.S. cannot return for ten years.

Undocumented: the term used to describe foreign nationals who are present in the U.S. without lawful status. The term can refer to those who entered the U.S. without inspection (by crossing the border), those who overstayed their allotted time here, or those who violated the terms of their legal status. With very limited exceptions (notably asylum and immediate relatives of U.S. citizen petitions) a person who is not in lawful status in the U.S. cannot change from being in the U.S. unlawfully to being here lawfully.

Uniting American Families Act (UAFA): Previously known as the Permanent Partners Immigration Act or PPIA, this is an act pending in both houses of Congress which, if it became law, would permit U.S. citizens or legal permanent residents to sponsor their long-term, same-sex partners for immigration benefits.

Unlawful presence: time accumulated in the U.S. after a foreign national’s authorized stay expires. This can lead to problems with the 3 year/10 year bar.

Visa: a visa is a legal document that permits its holder to seek entry into the United States on either a temporary or a permanent basis. Legally, a visa merely permits the foreign national to board transportation to the U.S. Permission to enter the country may be granted or denied by immigration officials at the port of entry.

Visa bulletin: this is where the Department of State keeps track of whether a foreign national with an approved family preference petition (I-130) or employment preference petition, can see whether their “priority date” is current and whether it is now possible to file the I-485 for the “green card.” DOS Visa Bulletin.

Visa Waiver Program: or VWP, a program through which nationals of certain countries, mostly Western European, may seek entry into the United States for up to 90 days without first obtaining a visa. Visa waiver entrants generally cannot change their status from within the U.S. VWP countries are listed at

Voluntary Departure: a form of relief given to a foreign national in removal proceedings whereby he or she agrees to leave the United States voluntarily be a specific date rather than being deported directly by the U.S. government. The penalty on returning to the U.S. after departing voluntarily is generally less than if a person is removed at U.S. government expense. Prior to changes in the law in 1996, voluntary departure could also signify a form of humanitarian relief, similar to deferred action, whereby foreign nationals who were too sick to depart the U.S. would be permitted to remain here for two year periods of time.

Waiver: application to “waive” or “forgive” a characteristic that could otherwise lead to a denial of an application. Common reasons for waiver applications include HIV-positive status, certain criminal convictions and unlawful presence.

Withholding of removal: a form of relief similar to asylum and applied for simultaneously with asylum. Withholding allows a foreign national to remain in the U.S. if she or he would face persecution in her or his home country. There is no one year filing deadline for withholding, but the standard is higher. Unlike asylum, withholding does not lead to legal permanent residence in the U.S.