Common Terms Found in U.S. Immigration Law

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Here are some bits of terminology and legal jargon that you are likely to encounter if dealing with U.S. immigration matters.

A-Number. An eight- or nine-digit number following the letter A (for Alien) that U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) assigns to someone who applies for a green card or certain other immigration benefits, or who are placed in removal proceedings. Once you are assigned this number, USCIS uses it to track your file. You should include it on any correspondence with USCIS.

Adjustment interview. Normally the final step in applying for adjustment of status or a green card within the United States. At the interview, a USCIS officer personally reviews the application, speaks with the applicant, and approves or denies the application.

Adjustment of status. The procedure for becoming a lawful permanent resident without having to leave the United States. Adjustment of status is available only to immigrants who fit certain eligibility criteria. Many immigrants will have to use the traditional method of gaining permanent residence, even if they already live in the United States, which involves applying for an immigrant visa at a U.S. consulate or embassy abroad (consular processing).

Alien. USCIS uses this term to refer to “a foreign-born person who is not a citizen or national of the United States.” I.N.A. Section 101(a)(3); 8 U.S.C. Section 1101(a)(3). In other words, the word covers everyone from illegal aliens to green card holders.

Beneficiary. A person intending to immigrate to the United States, for whom a family member or employer in the United States has filed a visa petition in order to sponsor the would-be immigrant.

Border Patrol. The informal name for an agency called Customs and Border Protection (CBP), which, like USCIS, is part of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). Its primary functions include keeping the borders secure from illegal crossers, and meeting legal entrants at airports and border posts to check their passports and visas and decide whether they should be allowed into the United States.

Citizen (U.S.). A person who owes allegiance to the U.S. government, is entitled to its protection, and enjoys the highest level of rights due to members of U.S. society. People become U.S. citizens through their birth in the United States or its territories, through their parents, or through naturalization (applying for citizenship and passing the citizenship exam). Citizens cannot have their status taken away except for certain extraordinary reasons usually involving fraud in acquiring that citizenship.

Citizenship exam. The test that a lawful permanent resident must pass before he or she can become a U.S. citizen, covering the English language as well as U.S. civics, history, and government.

Conditional resident. A person whose status is almost identical to that of a lawful permanent resident, except that the status expires after a set period of time. Immigrants whose marriages to U.S. citizens haven’t reached their second anniversary by the time they’re approved for residency become conditional residents. Their residency will expire after another two years. USCIS may then approve the person for permanent residency. On rare occasions where it becomes apparent even before the two-year expiration date that the marriage was a sham, USCIS can terminate a conditional resident’s status immediately (see I.N.A. Section 216(b)(1); 8 U.S.C. Section 1186a(b)(1)). The other category of conditional residents is people who received their green cards as investors in a U.S. business. They too must go through a two-year testing period to make sure they maintain an active role in that business.

Consular interview. Normally the final major step in the process of applying for a green card from overseas. At the interview, a U.S. consular officer personally reviews the application, speaks with the applicant, and approves or denies an entry visa. (The U.S. border officer has the final say, however, in whether the entry visa can be exchanged for the green card or lawful permanent resident status.)

Consular processing. The green card application process for immigrants whose final interview and visa decision will happen at an overseas U.S. embassy or consulate.

Consulate. An office of the U.S. Department of State located overseas and affiliated with a U.S. embassy in that country’s capital city. The consulate’s responsibilities often include processing visa applications (though many consulates handle only temporary, or nonimmigrant visas, not immigrant visas that lead to green cards).

Customs and Border Protection (CBP). See Border Patrol, above.

Department of Homeland Security (DHS). A government agency created in 2003 to handle immigration and other security-related issues. DHS became the umbrella agency encompassing USCIS, ICE, and CBP.

Department of Justice. An agency of the U.S. federal government that oversees the U.S. Immigration Courts.

Department of State. An agency of the United States federal government that oversees U.S. embassies and consulates.

Deport/Deportation. See Removal, below.

Deportable. An immigrant who falls into one of the grounds listed at I.N.A. Section 237; 8 U.S.C. Section 1227, is said to be deportable, and can be removed from the United States after a hearing in Immigration Court. Even a permanent resident can be deported.

Direct consular filing. A service provided at some U.S. consulates overseas, by which a person can submit all of the paperwork for a marriage-based visa directly to the consulate. This service saves the time that applicants must normally spend waiting for certain portions of their application to be approved by or transferred from USCIS offices in the United States.

DOMA. The federal Defense of Marriage Act, which defined marriage as occurring only between a man and a woman, resulting in the denial of marriage-based green cards to same-sex couples. With the Supreme Court's overturning of DOMA in 2013, the way was cleared for same-sex petitions to go forward.

EAD. See Employment Authorization Document, below.

Embassy. The chief U.S. consulate within a given country, usually located in the capital city. This is where the U.S. ambassador lives. Most of the embassies handle applications for visas to the United States.

Employment Authorization Document (EAD). More commonly called a work permit, this is a card with one’s photo on it that indicates that the card holder has the right to work in the United States. Green card holders no longer need to have an EAD.

Executive Office for Immigration Review. See Immigration Court, below.

Expedited removal. This refers to the all-too-short and not-so-sweet procedures by which Customs and Border Patrol officers at U.S. borders and ports of entry may decide that a person cannot enter the United States. See I.N.A. Section 235(b); 8 U.S.C. Section 1225(b). The officers can refuse entry when they believe the person has used fraud or is carrying improper documents. People removed this way are barred from reentering the United States for five years.

Family Unity. A special program for spouses and children of people who received residency through Amnesty or Cuban/Haitian Adjustment in the late 1980s (Amnesty was a one-time program, benefiting people who had been living or doing farm work illegally in the United States). Through the Family Unity program, these family members receive a temporary right to live and work in the United States while waiting to become eligible for permanent residence through a family visa petition.

Field Office. One of various USCIS offices in the United States that serves the public in a specified geographical area. Field Offices are where most USCIS field staff are located. These offices usually have an information desk, provide USCIS forms, and accept and make decisions on some—but not all—applications for immigration benefits. For a list of locations, see the USCIS website at www.uscis.gov.

Fraud interview. A specialized USCIS interview in which one or both members of an engaged or married couple are examined to see whether their marriage is real, or just a sham to get the foreign-born person a green card. Also called a Stokes interview.

Green card. This slang term refers to the identification card carried by lawful permanent or conditional residents of the United States. It has been various colors over the years, but is now, once again, green. The USCIS name for the green card is an “I-551” or “Alien Registration Receipt Card.” Don’t confuse it with the other card often carried by noncitizens, the work permit or Employment Authorization Document.

Green card holder. This is the common slang term for an immigrant or a lawful resident, whether permanent or conditional.

I-94. Up until April 2013, all U.S. visitors received a small green or white I-94 card in their passports when entering the United States. However, after this date, the form has been automated for most visitors (refugees and asylees being the notable exceptions) and it can be accessed from the CBP website. The I-94 shows the date when the person’s authorized stay expires. Many people wrongly believe that they can stay until the expiration date in their original visa. Unfortunately, it is the date in the I-94 that controls (although if the visa remains valid, the person may reenter the United States).

Illegal alien. Illegal alien is more of a slang term than a legal term, usually referring to people who have no permission to live in the United States. The preferred legal term is “undocumented person.”

Immediate relative. An immediate relative is the spouse, parent, or unmarried child under age 21 of a U.S. citizen. Immediate relatives can apply for green cards without worrying about quotas or waiting periods. “Spouses” include widows and widowers who apply for the green card within two years of the U.S. citizen spouse’s death. Parents must wait until their U.S. citizen child is age 21 to apply. Children can include stepchildren and adopted children (subject to further requirements).

Immigrant. Though the general public usually calls any foreign-born newcomer to the United States an immigrant, USCIS prefers to think of immigrants as including only those persons who have attained “permanent residency” or a green card. Everyone else is called a nonimmigrant, even though they are in the United States.

Immigration Court. Also known as the “Executive Office for Immigration Review” or “EOIR.” This is the first court that will hear your case if you are placed in removal proceedings. Cases are heard by an “Immigration Judge,” who doesn’t hear any other type of case. USCIS has its own crew of trial attorneys who represent the agency in court.

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 Nationality Act (I.N.A.). A portion of the federal code containing all the immigration laws. The I.N.A. is also contained in the United States Code (U.S.C.) at Title 8, which you can find via the "Laws" page of the USCIS website at www.uscis.gov.

Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS). Formerly, a branch of the United States Department of Justice, responsible for controlling the United States borders, enforcing the immigration laws, and processing and judging the cases of immigrants living in the United States. However, in 2003, the INS was absorbed into the Department of Homeland Security, and its functions divided between U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), Customs and Border Protection (CBP), and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

Inadmissible. A person to whom the U.S. government will deny a visa or admission to the United States because he or she falls into one of the categories listed at I.N.A. Section 212; 8 U.S.C. Section 1182. Broadly speaking, these categories of inadmissibility cover people who might be a burden on or risk to the U.S. government or public for health, security, or financial reasons. Replaces the formerly used term “excludable.” Green card holders who leave the United States can also be found inadmissible upon attempting to return.

K-1 visa. The State Department’s name for a fiancé visa.

K-2 visa. The State Department’s name for the visa given to unmarried children under age 21 who accompany someone on a fiancé visa.

K-3 visa. The State Department’s name for a visa added by Congress in December 2000, meant for already-married persons who would prefer to use a so-called fiancé visa as a faster mode of entering the United States. However, the K-3 has fallen into disuse, because it did not speed up the process and was more expensive than traditional immigrant visas.

K-4 visa. Given to children of K-3 visa holders.

Lawful permanent resident. See Permanent resident, below.

National Visa Center (NVC). An intermediary office responsible for receiving the files of approved visa petition applicants from the various USCIS Service Centers, sending the applicants instructions and requests for forms and fees, and ultimately transferring the cases to overseas U.S. consulates. In some cases, the NVC may hold onto an applicant’s files for years, while the immigrant is on the waiting list for a visa.

Naturalization. When an immigrant succeeds in attaining U.S. citizenship through submitting an application and passing the citizenship exam, he or she is said to have “naturalized.”

Nonimmigrant. A broad term meant to cover everyone who comes to the United States temporarily. Most nonimmigrants have a specific expiration date attached to their stay. Some others may stay for the “duration of status,” or “D/S,” such as students, who can stay until they complete their education.

NVC. See National Visa Center, above.

Permanent residence. The status of being a permanent resident; see below.

Permanent resident. A “green card holder.” Also called a “lawful permanent resident.” This is a person who has been approved to live in the United States for an unlimited amount of time. However, the status can be taken away for certain reasons, such as having committed a crime or made one’s home outside the United States. Though the green card itself needs to be renewed every ten years, the actual status doesn’t expire. After a certain number of years (usually five), a permanent resident can apply for U.S. citizenship. But many people remain in the United States for decades without applying for citizenship. Although they cannot vote, permanent residents enjoy many other rights, such as the right to work and travel freely.

Petitioner. Someone who has filed a visa petition in order to sponsor a family member to immigrate to the United States.

Public charge. The immigration law term for an immigrant who has insufficient financial support and goes on welfare or other government assistance.

Removal. A new immigration law term combining the former terms “exclusion” and “deportation.” Removal means the process of sending an alien back to his or her home country because he or she is (or has become) inadmissible or deportable. (Before the laws changed a few years ago, “exclusion” meant sending a person back before they’d entered the United States, and “deportation” meant sending someone away who was already in the United States.)

Resident. Someone who is residing legally in the United States, whether temporarily, permanently, or conditionally.

Service Center. A USCIS office responsible for accepting and making decisions on particular applications from people in specified geographical areas. Unlike the USCIS Field Offices, the Service Centers are not open to the public; all communication must be by letter, with limited telephone access. Though inconvenient to work with, you may have no choice—an application that must be decided by a Service Center will not be accepted or decided by a Field Office.

Sponsor (noun). The traditional but nonlegal term for a Petitioner -- that is, someone who signs a visa petition to help an immigrant receive a U.S. green card. The narrower and more accurate meaning of the term is someone who signs an affidavit of support promising a foreign-born person financial sponsorship in the United States.

Sponsor (verb). To “sponsor” an immigrant is the traditional term for “petitioning” the person to come to the United States—that is, initiating a process allowing the immigrant to apply for legal admission and/or status by virtue of a family relation to the sponsor. This term is not found in the immigration laws, however.

Status. In the USCIS’s vocabulary, to have “status” means to have a legal right (temporary or permanent) to remain in the United States. For example, green card holders have “permanent resident” status; people on student visas are in student status.

Stokes interview. See "Fraud interview," above.

Summary exclusion. See Expedited removal.

Time bars. The common name for the three or ten years that a person may have to spend outside the United States as a penalty for having previously lived there illegally for six months or more.

United States Code. See Immigration and Nationality Act, above.

Unlawful time. “Unlawful” is a legal term referring to time spent in the United States without documents, an unexpired visa, or any other legal right to be here. How much time a person has spent in the United States unlawfully has become extremely significant within immigration law, for reasons of inadmissibility.

Visa. A right to enter the United States. Physically, the visa usually appears as a stamp in the applicant’s passport, given by a United States consulate overseas. In some cases, the visa is used only to enter the United States, at which time the visa is immediately exchanged for a “status” (such as that of permanent resident); in other cases a person’s entire stay in the United States is covered by a visa (such as a tourist or student visa). Sometimes, however, you will hear the terms “visa” and “status” used as if they were interchangeable—in part reflecting the fact that immigrants switching to a new status within the United States are technically granted a visa, or at least a visa number, although they may never see it. Different types of visas have different names, usually with letter codes. For example, a “B” visa is a visitor visa; an “F” visa is a student visa.

Visa petition. The first application filed by a U.S. citizen or lawful permanent resident petitioner, which starts the process of bringing their family member to the United States as an immigrant. This application is sometimes referred to by its form number, I-130.

Visa Waiver Program. A program that allows citizens of certain countries to enter the United States without a visa and stay for up to 90 days. For details and a list of countries, see travel.state.gov, or talk to your local U.S. consulate.

Waiver. An application that a hopeful immigrant files with USCIS, usually on Form I-601, asking them to overlook, or forgive, something that would normally make that person ineligible for an immigration benefit or for entry to the United States. Only certain problems can be waived.

Work permit. See Employment Authorization Document (EAD), above.

by: , J.D.

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