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Basic Immigration Terminology

by Gregory Siskind

The following is a list of terms that are commonly used in immigration law.

Adjustment of status – The process in which someone who holds nonimmigrant, refugee, or parolee status, is allowed to apply for immigrant or lawful permanent status while they are in the United States.

Alien – A person who is not a national or citizen of the United States.

Asylum – The status sought by a person physically present in the United States.  The individual must have a well-founded fear of persecution on the basis of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion, if made to return to his or her country of nationality.  If the person does not have a country of nationality, then they must fear these grounds upon returning to their last place of habitual residence.  One of these five grounds of asylum must be proven in order for the individual to win an asylum claim.  Asylees differ from refugees in that the asylee has already entered the country when they are trying to obtain status. 

Conditional Permanent Resident Status – A status conferred on an alien spouse and children at the time of obtaining lawful permanent residence, such status having been obtained: (1) on the basis of a marriage to a U.S. citizen or permanent resident spouse entered into less than two years prior to obtaining said status, or (2) as an immigrant investor, in which case it applies to the investor and the members of his or her family.

Deportation – When an alien who has violated immigration laws is found to be removable from the United States.

Dual Nationality – Possessing two citizenships simultaneously.  Dual nationality can occur by birth in one country to citizens of another country, by marriage to a foreign national, or by foreign naturalization.  While the U.S. government does not endorse dual nationality, it does recognize its existence and does not require a foreign citizen to give up his or her other nationality in order to become a U.S. citizen.  Some countries, such as Germany, do not allow dual nationality and require relinquishment of any other nationality.

Green Card – The popular name for the Alien Registration Receipt Card, which is given to individuals who become legal permanent residents of the United States.  While the card was once green, hence earning the nickname, it is presently pink.  The card serves as a U.S. entry document, enabling permanent residences to return to the U.S. after temporary absences.  You can apply for the green card anywhere, but you can only actually receive the green card inside U.S. borders.  In addition, the card and the benefits that come along with it are permanent, therefore you cannot lose it unless you abandon your U.S. residence or commit certain types of crimes.  However, a new, updated green card must be applied for every ten years.

Immigrant – Any person who is residing in the United States as a legally recognized and lawfully recorded permanent resident.  This is what every alien seeking entry to the United States is presumed to be unless they prove they want entry on a nonimmigrant basis. 

National – A person owing permanent allegiance to a state.

National of the United States – A citizen of the United States or a person who, though not a citizen of the United States, owes permanent allegiance to the United States.  Presently, the only noncitizen nationals of the United States are residents of the American Samoa and Swains Island.

Naturalization – When a person acquires nationality of a state after birth.  Citizenship of a foreign state acquired after birth is not naturalization.

Nonimmigrant – A person coming to the United States temporarily for a specific purpose. 

Passport – A travel document that allows a person to gain admission into a foreign country.  The document should show the bearer’s origin, identity, and nationality.

Refugee – A person that is unable or unwilling to return to their country of nationality because of a well-founded fear of persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion.  These individuals apply for status before coming to the United States.

Residence – An individual’s one principal, actual dwelling place.

Special Immigrant – Common categories of special immigrants are workers for recognized religions, former U.S. government workers, and foreign doctors who have been practicing medicine in the United States for many years.  There is an annual quota of 10,000 green cards that can be given to special immigrants.

Status – The name for the group of privileges you are given when you receive immigration benefits, either as a permanent resident or a nonimmigrant.  A person holds their status as long as they are on American soil.  Once they leave American soil, they may lose that status.  Permanent resident status is not lost by a temporary absence from the United States.

Visa – A stamp placed in your passport by a U.S. consulate outside of the United States.  All visas, which can be either immigrant or nonimmigrant, serve as entry documents.  Except for a few types of visa renewals, visas cannot be issued inside American borders; therefore, you must be outside the U.S. to get a visa.

About The Author

Gregory Siskind is a partner in Siskind Susser's Memphis, Tennessee, office. After graduating magna cum laude from Vanderbilt University, he received his Juris Doctorate from the University of Chicago. Mr. Siskind is a member of AILA, a board member of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, and a member of the ABA, where he serves on the LPM Publishing Board as Marketing Vice Chairman. He is the author of several books, including the J Visa Guidebook and The Lawyer's Guide to Marketing on the Internet. Mr. Siskind practices all areas of immigration law, specializing in immigration matters of the health care and technology industries. He can be reached by email at

The opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the opinion of ILW.COM.

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