Learn the Language of the Immigration Bureaucracy
A glossary of terms you're likely to encounter during your immigration experience.
Immigration has its own alphabet soup of words and arcane government terminology. You will have an advantage if you know the meaning of certain key words and phrases.
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 members of his or her family. These family members are called accompanying relatives, and include spouses and unmarried children under the age of 21.
Adjustment of Status. The procedure for applying for a green card while living within the United States, at an office of U.S Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS).
Alien Registration Receipt Card. An Alien Registration Receipt Card (ARC) is the official name used in immigration law for a green card.
Applicant. When you make a formal request for a green card or nonimmigrant visa, you are considered an applicant. In cases where the green card or visa requires the filing of a petition by a sponsor, you are usually not considered an applicant until your sponsor has successfully completed the petition on your behalf. In these cases, you are called a beneficiary until the petition is filed.
Application. An application is a formal request for a green card or visa. In the case of most green cards and many immigrant visas and nonimmigrant visas, an application cannot be made until you obtain recognition from the immigration authorities that you are qualified for the status you are seeking. This is done by submitting a petition, or having someone submit one on your behalf.
Asylum. A legal status granted to an individual who is in the United States and who has suffered persecution or fears future persecution if forced to return to his or her home country, on account of his or her race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion. People granted asylum (called "asylees") can apply for a green card one year after their approval for asylum.
Beneficiary. If your relative or employer files a petition for a visa on your behalf, you become a beneficiary. An approved beneficiary may go on to apply for a visa or green card. The word "beneficiary" comes from the fact that the person benefits from the petition.
Border Patrol. This is the common name for an agency called Customs and Border Protection (CBP), which is part of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). Its primary function is to handle enforcement of the immigration laws at the land borders, airports and seaports.
Customs and Border Protection (CBP). See Border Patrol, above.
Department of Homeland Security. A government agency created in 2003 to handle immigration and other security-related issues.
Department of Labor. The Department of Labor (DOL) is a U.S. government agency that plays a role in the application process for many types of job-related visas. Most importantly, it is the DOL that receives applications for labor certifications and decides whether or not there is a shortage of American citizens available to fill a particular position in a U.S. company, which is the first decision that must be made before a foreign worker can apply for a green card.
Department of State. The U.S. Department of State (DOS) operates U.S. embassies and consulates. Generally, it is the DOS that determines who is entitled to a visa or green card when an application is filed outside the United States. But it is U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), under the Department of Homeland Security, that regulates immigration processing inside the United States.
Deportation. See Removal, below.
Diversity Visa Program ("The Lottery"). An annual green card lottery program is held for persons born in certain countries. Every year, the Department of State determines which countries have sent the fewest number of immigrants to America, relative to the sizes of their populations. A certain number of applicants from those countries, selected at random after they send in a short application, are then given the opportunity to go on and apply for a green card.
Green Card. The well-known term "green card" is a popular name for an Alien Registration Receipt Card. The card, which is actually pink, was at one time green. But the term green card has stuck and it is still used inside and outside of the immigration bureaucracy. (No one will know what you are talking about if you refer to it as a pink card.)
This plastic photo identification card is given to individuals who are legal permanent residents of the United States. It serves as a U.S. entry document, enabling permanent residents to return to the United States after temporary absences. Unless you abandon your residence or commit certain types of crimes, your green card can never be taken away. Possession of a green card also allows you to work in the United States legally.
You can apply for a green card while you are in the United States or while you are elsewhere, but you can actually receive the green card only inside American borders. If you apply for your green card outside the United States, you will first be issued an immigrant visa. Only after you use the immigrant visa to enter the United States can you get a green card (it will be sent by mail).
Those who hold green cards for a certain length of time may eventually apply for U.S. citizenship. Green cards have an expiration date of ten years from issuance. This does not mean that your permanent resident status expires. You must simply apply for a new card.
I-94 card. The I-94 card is a small green or white card given to all nonimmigrants when they enter the United States. The I-94 card serves as evidence that a nonimmigrant has entered the country legally. 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 new I-94 card with a new date is issued each time the nonimmigrant legally enters the United States. Canadian visitors are not normally issued I-94 cards.
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. The agency formerly responsible for all immigration decisions and border enforcement, which in 2003 was absorbed into the new Department of Homeland Security as three new Bureaus: Customs and Border Protection (CBP), U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
Immigrant Visa. If you are approved for a green card at a U.S. consulate or U.S. embassy, you will not receive it until after you enter the United States. In order to enter the United States, you must have a visa. Therefore, when you are granted the right to a green card, you are issued an immigrant visa. An immigrant visa enables you to enter the United States, take up permanent residence, and receive a green card.
Inadmissible. 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"). In general, most of these people are considered inadmissible because they have criminal records, have certain health problems, are thought to be terrorists or subversives, or are unable to support themselves financially. In some cases, there are legal ways to overcome inadmissibility.
Labor Certification. Many green cards are issued to foreign nationals if they have a job offer from a U.S. employer. However, in many cases, a job offer alone is not enough to make you eligible for a green card. First you must prove that there are no qualified U.S. workers available and willing to take the job. The U.S. Department of Labor does this through a procedure called labor certification.
National Visa Center. The National Visa Center (NVC), located in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, is run by a private company under contract with the Department of State for the purpose of carrying out certain immigration functions. The NVC receives all approved green card petitions and green card lottery registrations directly from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) or the Department of State (DOS). In cases subject to quotas and waiting periods, the NVC may keep the files for years. The NVC then advances 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.
Naturalization. When a foreign person takes legal action to become a U.S. citizen, the process is called naturalization. Almost everyone who goes through naturalization must first have held a green card for several years. A naturalized U.S. citizen has virtually the same rights as a native-born American citizen.
Nonimmigrant. Nonimmigrants are those who come to the United States 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 have the intention of staying only temporarily in the United States. There are many types of nonimmigrants. Students, temporary workers, and visitors are some of the most common.
Nonimmigrant Visa. Individuals who come to the United States temporarily and for a limited purpose do so 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, a letter of the alphabet and a number identifies each type of nonimmigrant visa. Student visas, for example, are F-1 or M-1, and investors are E-2. Nonimmigrant visas also vary according to how long they permit you to stay in the United States. For example, on an investor visa, you can remain for many years, but on a visitor's visa, you can stay for only six months at a time.
Parole. Under certain circumstances, a person may be allowed to come into the United States even when he or she does not meet established visa requirements. The concept is that someone who is "paroled" in (called a "parolee") hasn't really "entered" the U.S., so the normal rights and rules don't apply. Parole is sometimes used for humanitarian reasons, other times for the convenience of the U.S. authorities -- for example, to bring in a suspected terrorist for interrogation. Some illegal immigrants who arrive at U.S. borders without visas are given parole while the immigration authorities consider whether to remove them or grant them legal status to remain in the United States. "Advance parole" may be granted to a person who is already in the United States but needs to leave temporarily, without a visa. This is most common when someone has a green card application in process and wishes to leave the United States for an emergency, on business, or simply for pleasure purposes.
Permanent Resident. A permanent resident is a non-U.S. citizen who has been given permission to make his or her permanent home 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" mean 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 United States and you must keep that residence on a permanent basis. If you leave the United States and stay away for more than a year, you risk losing your green card. You can also lose your right to permanent residence by committing certain crimes or otherwise violating the immigration laws. All permanent residents can eventually apply for U.S. citizenship, usually after five years.
Petition. A petition is the first step of a formal request for a green card or a specific nonimmigrant visa, such as a student or business visa. Along with the petition forms, the family member or employer who sponsors you must submit documents that prove you qualify for the status you wish to obtain. For example, if you marry a U.S. citizen, your citizen spouse would submit a copy of your marriage certificate and proof of his or her citizenship. After your petition is approved, you may submit your visa application or Adjustment of Status application.
Petitioner. The petitioner is a U.S. resident or business who makes a formal request that you be allowed to apply for entry to the United States. The petitioner must be either your relative who is a U.S. citizen or green card holder, or your prospective U.S. employer. No one else may act as your petitioner. Almost all green card categories and some types of nonimmigrant visa categories require you to have a petitioner.
Priority Date. Because a limited number of green cards are issued each year to applicants in categories affected by quotas, these applicants must wait their turn behind others who have filed before. The date on which your petitioner first files a petition for you is called the priority date. Your priority date marks your place in the waiting line. Each month the U.S. Department of State, in accordance with established quotas, 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.
Quota. There are no limits to the number of green cards issued to immediate relatives of U.S. citizens. But there are annual quotas for every other category. If there are more green card applicants than there are green cards allocated under a particular category's annual quota, a backlog is created and applicants must wait their turns. It is because of the quota that it can often take years to get a green card.
Refugee. Refugees are people who have been allowed to live in the United States indefinitely to protect them from persecution in their home countries. Refugees get their status before coming to the U.S., while asylum seekers obtain their status after arrival. Refugees may eventually apply for green cards.
Removal. Removal (formerly "deportation") is a legal proceeding conducted before a border patrol officer or a special immigration judge to decide whether or not an immigrant will be allowed to enter or remain in the United States. While, generally speaking, a person who is already in the U.S. 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. Those who are deported or removed are barred from returning to the United States for at least five years unless the U.S. immigration authorities grant a special waiver.
Special Immigrant. Laws are occasionally passed directing that green cards be given to special groups of people. 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.
Sponsor. The word "sponsor" does not appear anywhere in the U.S. immigration laws. When people refer to a sponsor for immigration purposes, they usually mean a petitioner. Years ago, any willing U.S. citizen could bring any foreigner into the United States simply by vouching for his or her character and guaranteeing his or her financial support. Under the present U.S. immigration laws, this type of sponsorship is no longer possible. Petitioner/sponsors must now be prospective U.S. employers or close relatives who are U.S. citizens or green card holders.
Status. Visas and green cards are things you can see. A status is not. Status is the name for 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. For example, a green card (the physical object) indicates the status of a permanent resident. A nonimmigrant F-1 or M-1 visa indicates that the holder has the status of a student.
Temporary Protected Status (TPS). The Immigration Act of 1990 created a temporary status for people already in the United States who came from certain countries experiencing conditions of war or natural disasters. Temporary Protected Status (TPS) allows someone to live and work in the United States for a specific time period, but it does not lead to a green card.
U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). A branch of the agency formerly known as the INS (Immigration and Naturalization Service), now reorganized under the Department of Homeland Security. USCIS is primarily responsible for handling immigration benefits, such as applications for asylum, work permits, green cards, and citizenship.
U.S. Consulates. U.S. consulates are branch offices of U.S. embassies. Like embassies, they are located all over the world. The U.S. government frequently operates both consulates and embassies in a single foreign country. Most consulates accept and process green card and visa applications.
U.S. Embassies. U.S. embassies are agencies that represent the U.S. government in other countries. The United States has embassies located in many countries around the world. Most U.S. embassies accept and process green card and visa applications.
Visa. A visa grants someone official permission to enter a foreign country, including the United States. Visas to the United States are normally given out in the form of a stamp placed in your passport by an official at an overseas U.S. consulate. Visas can be designated as either immigrant or nonimmigrant. Immigrant visas are issued to those who will live in the United States permanently and get green cards. Everyone else gets nonimmigrant visas.
Visa Waiver Program. Nationals from certain countries may come to the United States without a visa as tourists for 90 days. They can do so under what is known as the Visa Waiver Program. Persons coming to the United States on this program receive green-colored I-94 cards. They are not permitted to extend their stay or change their statuses.