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Jun 28, 2024 | Nancy Chen

Migrants and Immigrants: What’s the Difference?

What is the difference between a migrant, asylum seeker, refugee, immigrant, lawful permanent resident and an undocumented immigrant? These are the differences in the definitions of each status.

Differences between immigrant, nonimmigrant and undocumented immigrant

Immigration involves the crossing of a national boundary. The technical definition of “immigrant” from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is any person lawfully in the United States who is not a U.S. citizen, U.S. national, or person admitted under a nonimmigrant category.

Also Read: Are Asylum Seekers Illegal? Migrants in the U.S., Explained

The term has a legal connotation and often means foreign-born citizens who have legal permanent residency or a green card in the U.S. Green card holders may be eligible to become naturalized citizens after five years of residency.

In comparison, a nonimmigrant is a term used by the DHS to describe a person who is lawfully admitted to the U.S. for a temporary amount of time and to fulfill a specific purpose, like take a a job or attend school.

They are also called temporary immigrants as they may have a temporary visa and stay in the U.S. for a limited period of time, said Neeraj Kaushal, a professor specializing in immigration policy at Columbia University. For example, someone with a B-2 tourist visa, F-1 student visa, and workers on H-1B visa are all nonimmigrants by the above definition.

You may also see adjectives like “undocumented” or “unauthorized” attached to the term immigrant. DHS defines it as “all foreign-born non-citizens who are not legal residents.” Undocumented or unauthorized immigrants include people coming into the U.S. without a valid visa or those staying in the country beyond their visa limit.

Many news outlets and experts avoid using the term “illegal immigrant,” which is often used in right-wing media. This is because “illegal immigrant essentially means that the person you’re describing is herself illegal, as in her very existence is against the law,” immigration attorney Rebecca Press wrote in an email.

A person may enter a border without the required paperwork, but a human being per se is not illegal, so the term is inaccurate and offensive, Press continues.

There were around 2.8 million nonimmigrants and 11 million unauthorized or undocumented immigrants in the U.S. according to DHS data from January 2022. Another report by The National Desk shows that around 10.2 million undocumented immigrants were estimated to live in the U.S. by late 2020.

Also Read: How to Get a Green Card as an Undocumented Immigrant in the United States

Who is a migrant?

Migration is a broad term to describe the action of moving. It doesn’t have to be moving from one country to another, but relocating within one country. For example, technically, you can call someone who was from Alabama but decided to spend the rest of their life in Minnesota a migrant. But in reality, few people use migrant to describe people moving within the U.S., Kaushal said.

In addition, although the term migrant itself does not have negative connotations, advocates warn that it is now being weaponized and misused by right-wing media and politicians, said Tania Mattos, Interim Executive Director of UnLocal, an immigrant serving community organization. So, some advocates prefer not to differentiate migrants from immigrants.

The term “migrant” is often associated with refugees and asylum seekers or seasonal workers. Asylum seekers and refugees are forced to leave their country due to a credible fear of persecution from their home country. Migrants, on the other hand, may move for other reasons, including finding a better education or job opportunities. Migrants include asylum seekers and refugees, but not all migrants are asylum seekers or refugees.

Lawful Permanent Residents (LPR) are foreign nationals who have been granted the rights to reside permanently in the U.S. Refugees and asylees (those who have been granted asylum) can apply to adjust their status to LPR. But there are many other pathways to becoming an LPR.

The number of LPR, refugees and asylees was roughly 26 million as of January 2022, DHS data shows. There were around 2.8 million nonimmigrants and 11 million unauthorized immigrants, according to the same dataset. 

Who are asylum seekers and refugees?

Asylum seekers and refugees differ from other types of immigrants in that they need to undergo certain processes and qualifications. They have to prove that they have a “credible fear” to go back to their home country because they will be, or have reasons to fear being, persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group, such as being LGBTQ+.

Refugees need to apply for admission outside the U.S., while asylum seekers need to request asylum only after they are physically present in the U.S. or at the border. Asylum seekers are also categorized into affirmative asylum, which means noncitizen proactively applying for asylum, and defensive asylum, meaning noncitizens in removal proceedings.

According to the most recent DHS data, 14,134 people received affirmative asylum, and 22,481 people received defensive asylum, in fiscal year 2022. A total of 25,519 individuals were admitted as refugees the same year.

Also Read: I-589: How to Seek Asylum in the United States

Both asylum seekers and refugees are legal immigrants. It is possible that asylum seekers entered the country without a proper visa. But once they formally request asylum, they become an asylum seeker. They are allowed to remain in the U.S. while the application is pending and thus are no longer undocumented or unauthorized.

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