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Immigration Terminology & Acronyms
Tuesday, February 09, 2010


MIra Loma Detention Facility in Lancaster, Calif. (Christian Fuchs — Jesuit Refugee Service/USA)

The following are terms and acronyms commonly used when discussing immigration in the United States.

Asylee – An immigrant that the Department of Homeland Security grants asylum to and allows to legally remain in the United States.

Asylum – The process for immigrants claiming refuge in the United States due to fear of persecution (religious, ethnic, national, or political) in their home country. Asylum claims made by immigrants already present in the United States are affirmative asylum claims, while defensive asylum is claimed by an immigrant trying to prevent removal from the United States. 

Asylum Seeker – An immigrant that applies for asylum due to fear of persecution in his home country.

Criminal Alien – An immigrant that has violated the law and is eligible for deportation. Both legal and illegal immigrants can be classified as criminal aliens when they violate the law.   

Department of Homeland Security (DHS) – The federal government department that oversees the implementation of immigration policy. Immigration responsibilities of DHS include the apprehension of immigrants in violation of the law, detention of immigrants, deportation, processing asylum claims, and screening applicants for refugee status.

Detainee – A person held in custody by ICE waiting for a final decision on deportation or asylum. Detainees typically face civil charges stemming from illegally entering the U.S., overstaying a visa, or committing a crime. 

Enforcement and Removal Operations (ERO) – Formerly known as the Office of Detention and Removal Operations, this office within ICE identifies, apprehends, and detains immigrants. ERO manages immigrants in custody of the U.S. government and transports immigrants between detention facilities.

Lawful Permanent Resident (LPR) – An immigrant that holds a green card that allows him to live and work in the United States for an indefinite period. A LPR can be detained or deported if he commits certain crimes.

Legal Immigrant – A person born outside the United States that has been legally admitted into the country for permanent residence.

Legal Non-Immigrant – A person born outside the U.S. that has been legally admitted for a limited period of time to work or study in the U.S.

Parolee – A non citizen that the Attorney General allows to remain in the country for humanitarian reasons or public interest. A parolee can be detained at any time.

Refugee – People that have fled their home country and crossed international borders into another country because of conflict or fear of persecution. Refugees seeking resettlement in the United States are referred by UNHCR or an American embassy and remain outside the United States while the State Department and DHS process their resettlement request.

Undocumented immigrant – An immigrant present in the U.S. without proper immigration documents. 

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (CIS) – The agency within the Department of Homeland Security that is responsible for legal immigration processes such as visas and citizenship. CIS handles affirmative asylum cases.

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) – The agency within the Department of Homeland Security that is responsible for enforcing immigration laws. ICE operates, directly or through contractors, hundreds of detention centers in the United States. ICE processes defensive asylum claims.

The content of this section was taken from the Detention Watch Network’s Visiting Immigrants in U.S. Detention Facilities.

Further Reading

The Global Detention Project has produced a glossary and acronym list for immigration detention. GDP’s terms and acronyms are not specific to the U.S., but rather cover a wider range used throughout the world when discussing immigration.