Refugees and Immigrant Status: Terms and Concepts
There are a number of ways that people can legally enter the United States. In general, they can enter temporarily with a non-immigration visa good for up to six months, or they can enter as an immigrant. There are various types of immigration visas, which fall into three main categories: 1) to be sponsored by a family member, 2) to be sponsored by an employer, and 3) to come without a sponsor through the “Diversity Visa Program” (often referred to as the “lottery”). An immigration visa confers lawful permanent residence to the recipient, who is issued a “green card.” After five years of lawful permanent residence, one can apply to become a naturalized citizen.
A refugee is a person who has fled his or her country of origin because of past persecution or a well-founded fear of persecution based upon race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or a membership in a particular social group. Refugee status is conferred by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) as well as the United States Citizen and Immigration Services USCIS), and a limited number are resettled in the United States each year. Refugees are sponsored by a resettlement agency (often called a Volag, or Volunteer Agency), and usually given short-term assistance in the form of medical care and housing. The expectation is that they will obtain gainful employment as rapidly as possible. Refugees are usually prohibited from traveling outside the US without special permission.
An asylee is someone who is already living within the US and is petitioning to remain out of fear of persecution of they return to their homeland.
Status Descriptions (CDC)
Individuals reach the United States through a variety of mechanisms and are classified in distinct immigration categories based on their path. Immigration status will determine how an individual accesses healthcare within the United States.
A refugee is someone who has fled his or her country of origin because of past persecution or a well-founded fear of persecution based upon race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or a membership in a particular social group. Refugee status is conferred by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) as well as the United States Citizen and Immigration Services (USCIS). At the end of 2014, UNHCR estimated the prevalence of 19.5 million refugees worldwide. A very limited number of refugees are offered resettlement in the United States each year based upon a number decided by the president and agreed upon by Congress. In 2014, the United States admitted nearly 70,000 refugees, with the largest numbers arriving from Iraq, Burma, Somali, and Bhutan (Office of Immigration Statistics). Refugee status grants individuals short-term government assistance programs not available to other immigrant groups as well as an accelerated path to citizenship.
An asylum seeker is someone who is already living in the United States who petitions the government for asylum status by proving a well-founded fear of or past persecution due to race, religion, nationality, political opinions, or membership in a particular social group if returned to his or her own country of origin. An immigration court must determine whether the asylum seeker meets the same legal definition as a refugee in order to be granted asylum. From 2000 to 2010, the top ten countries of origin for people granted asylum in the United States were China, Colombia, Haiti, India, Ethiopia, Iraq, Armenia, Albania, Iran, and Somalia (CDC.gov).
An immigrant is a foreigner admitted to the United States as a lawful permanent resident. Permanent residents are also commonly referred to as immigrants; however, the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) defines an immigrant as any alien legally admitted for permanent residence in the United States, except for persons legally admitted under specific non-immigrant categories.
An adjustment of status is a procedure allowing certain aliens already in the United States to apply for immigrant status. Foreigners admitted to the United States in a non-immigrant, refugee, or parolee (status used to bring someone who is otherwise inadmissible into the United States for a temporary period of time due to a compelling humanitarian emergency) category may have their status changed to that of lawful permanent resident if they are eligible to receive an immigrant visa and one is immediately available.
A non-immigrant is a foreigner who seeks temporary entry to the United States for a specific purpose. The individual must have a permanent residence abroad (for most classes of admission) and qualify for the non-immigrant classification sought. Non-immigrants include foreign government officials, visitors for business and for pleasure, foreigners in transit through the United States, treaty traders and investors, students, international representatives, temporary workers and trainees, representatives of foreign information media, exchange visitors, fiancées of U.S. citizens, intracompany transferees, NATO officials, religious workers, and some others. Most non-immigrants can be accompanied or joined by spouses and unmarried minor (or dependent) children.
Migrants who enter the United States without inspection, including those who entered with and without proper documentation. Examples include undocumented immigrants; and also U.S. citizens and non-citizen U.S. nationals of territories of the United States that include American Samoa, Guam, Northern Mariana Islands, Puerto Rico, and U.S. Virgin Islands. documentation.
- VISA Information: US Department of State
- Glossary of Visa Terms: US Department of State
- Lawful Permanent Residence (Green Card): US Citizenship & Immigration Services
- Refugee Questions and Answers: US Citizenship & Immigration Services
- Refugee Health Clinical Topics on EthnoMed
A comprehensive guide with information for new immigrants, now available in 14 languages for free download.
- U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants
- UNHCR Resettlement Handbook and Country Chapters