The following is a list of commonly used phrases with very brief definitions. It is intended as a guide to help in reading other topic areas, not as a complete explanation for any of these complex topics. The Citizenship and Immigration Services website also has a useful glossary section.



Adjustment of status

The process of applying for legal permanent residence from within the United States as opposed to applying from abroad which is called “consular processing.”


Someone physically present in the U.S. who is not a U.S. citizen. Among others, the term includes: temporary visitors, legal permanent residents, and undocumented individuals. Many advocates feel this term has a negative connotation. We therefore use the term “foreign national” instead throughout the website.


An individual who has won a claim for asylum. Asylees are eligible to work in the United States and may be able to travel internationally on a refugee travel document. Asylees may sponsor immediate relatives and qualify for a wide variety of public benefits.  One year after winning asylum, an asylee may apply for legal permanent residence.


An immigration benefit for which nationals of other countries can apply if they have a well-founded fear of future persecution on account of certain protected characteristics. Persecution on account of sexual orientation, transgender identity and HIV-positive status have been found to be grounds for asylum.

Asylum Office/Asylum Officer

This is the first level at which applications for asylum may be heard. The asylum officer conducts an interview and either recommends approval, issues a notice of intent to deny, or refers an applicant to immigration court for further proceedings. If an applicant wins at the asylum office, he or she never has to go to immigration court.

Authorized stay

The amount of time an Immigration official allows a foreign national to remain in the U.S. The date is often stamped on the foreign national’s I-94 card or passport. This is the date by which the foreign national is expected to leave the U.S. or he or she will begin to accumulate unlawful presence here.


B1/B2 visa

The most common type of non-immigrant (temporary) visa to the United States. It is meant to be used for short term tourism or business (but not for earning money in the U.S.) To qualify for this visa, an applicant must overcome a presumption of “immigrant intent.” This means that the applicant must prove to the U.S. Consulate an intent to leave the U.S. at the conclusion of an authorized stay. 


In most applications for permanent residence (family-based and employment based immigrant visas), the visa applicant is actually the family member or employer, not the foreign national. Instead, the foreign national is the beneficiary of the application. It is important to be aware that in most circumstances, receiving immigration status in the United States is considered a benefit, not a right.

Board of Immigration Appeals or BIA

This is the administrative body that hears appeals from decisions of immigration judges. While an appeal before the BIA is pending, the foreign national is permitted to remain in the U.S. even if he or she was ordered removed.


A sum of money which a detained foreign national posts with the Department of Homeland Security in order to be permitted to be free from detention while removal proceedings are pending.


Cancellation of Removal

This is an immigration benefit which may be obtained only in immigration court.  There are two types of cancellation of removal.  First, non-LPR cancellation: a foreign national may be eligible for cancellation if the individual is out of status, but has resided in the United States continuously for ten years; possess good moral character; and removal (deportation) would result in an extreme and exceptionally unusual hardship to a U.S. citizen or legal permanent resident spouse, parent or child.  Second, LPR cancellation: a foreign national may be eligible for cancellation if the individual has resided in the U.S. for at least seven years, has permanent residence, and the Department of Homeland Security attempts to take away permanent residence status.

Change of status

The process by which a foreign national applies to change from one non-immigrant status (such as tourist) to another non-immigrant status (such as student.)

Citizen/U.S. Citizen

A person holds U.S. citizenship if they were born in the U.S. regardless of the immigration status of their parents. A non-citizen who becomes a lawful permanent resident may acquire citizenship through a legal process called naturalization. Children born to U.S. citizens abroad may also be U.S. citizens. Legal permanent resident children may obtain citizenship if their parents naturalize while they are minors. Citizens, even naturalized citizens, cannot be deported unless they committed fraud during the naturalization process.

Convention Against Torture (or CAT) relief

This immigration benefit allows foreign nationals to remain in the U.S. indefinitely if they can prove that they would be likely to face torture by their government if returned to their home country.

Court of Appeals

Federal circuit courts of appeals have the authority to review decisions by the BIA.

Customs and Border Protection (or CBP)

This is the division of the Department of Homeland Security which patrols the U.S. borders.



Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals is a program created by President Obama to offer deferred action to certain foreign national youths who were brought to the U.S. before they turned 16 years old.

Deferred Action

A minimal humanitarian status which The Department of Homeland Security can grant in cases of compelling humanitarian facts (such as a life-threatening illness). The status permits an individual to remain in the United States for a limited period of time (generally two years).  Deferred action is sometimes renewable.  

Department of Homeland Security (or DHS)

The department which includes many immigration agencies, such as CBP, USCIS, and ICE.

Department of Justice (or DOJ)

The department that includes the BIA and immigration courts, and is lead by the U.S. attorney general.

Department of State (or DOS)

A Department which runs embassies and consulates and makes decisions about non-immigrant visas and immigrant visas processed outside of the U.S. DOS also administers the annual Diversity Visa Lottery.


Removal, formerly called deportation, is a legal proceeding through which immigration officials seek to remove a foreign national from the United States for violating an immigration law or other U.S. law. These proceedings generally take place in immigration court before an immigration judge.  However, removal may also be quickly enforced at the border. 


The process by which the U.S. government holds foreign nationals in Immigration facilities, prisons, or jails while their removal proceedings are pending.

Diversity Visa Lottery

An annual lottery through which nationals of countries which the U.S. considers to be under-represented through other immigration channels, can apply for an immigrant visa (legal permanent residence) in the U.S. Foreign nationals can apply from outside or inside the U.S., but those who are unlawfully present in the U.S. will not be able to adjust status even if they win the lottery.

Duration of Status (or D/S:)

A notation for certain types of non-immigrants visas (usually students) instead of a date specific someone is expected to leave the U.S. A foreign national with D/S can legally remain in the U.S. as long as the individual maintains the status (such as student or worker) which authorized the visa issuance.


Employment authorization document (or EAD)

The card issued by the Citizenship and Immigration Services which permits a foreign national to work legally in the U.S. EADs are a benefit which accompany another status, such as a work visa, or a pending asylum or “green card” application, they cannot be applied for without some underlying immigration status.

Executive Office of Immigration Review (or EOIR)

The department which oversees immigration judges in immigration court. This is a part of the Department of Justice.

EWI (or Entered Without Inspection)

This phrase is used to indicate that someone entered the U.S. without being inspected by an immigration official. Most commonly this means crossing the Mexican or Canadian border without having any contact with an immigration official. A foreign national who enters the U.S. EWI generally cannot apply for legal status from within the United States, with the exception of asylum applicants and individuals with applications for adjustment grandfathered in under 245i.  Please note that a person who entered on a visa is not considered EWI even if they overstayed the visa. 


Family preference system

System of immigration whereby individuals may be sponsored for immigration benefits by a qualifying U.S. citizen or legal permanent resident family member. Other than immediate relatives of U.S. citizens, once a foreign national has established a qualifying relationship with a citizen or legal permanent resident relative, they must wait for their priority date to be reached to complete the second half of the application for legal permanent residence.  Unfortunately, some family members have to wait years before they can file for a green card. 


Green Card

This is the informal term for “an alien registration card” or Form I-551. It is proof that its holder has legal permanent resident status.


HIV exclusion

Until January 4, 2010, foreign nationals who were HIV-positive were forbidden to visit or immigrate to the United States unless they are eligible for certain narrow categories of waiver for this harsh rule. This law changed and people with HIV are no longer inadmissible to the U.S.



Until the spring of 2013, this was the small white card placed in the passport of foreign nationals when they visit the U.S. Customs and Border Protection. However, CBP is no longer issuing paper I-94 documents to foreign nationals upon entering the country. This information, including the date one’s authorized stay ends, can be accessed online. The I-94 indicates how long the foreign national is authorized to stay in the U.S., either with a specific date by which the foreign national is supposed to leave, or with a notation such as D/S (duration of status) which means the person is permitted to remain in the U.S. as long as he or she maintains her status (such as student status.)

Immediate Relative

For U.S. immigration purposes, immediate relatives of U.S. citizens are defined only as spouses, minor children, and parents of adult children. U.S. citizens can sponsor foreign nationals who are immediate relatives without having to wait for a visa to become available.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement (or ICE)

The enforcement branch of the Department of Homeland Security. This is the branch of DHS which includes deportation officers and trial attorneys in immigration court.


This is a technical legal term which means a foreign national who has been granted permission to remain in the United States permanently, that is a “legal permanent resident” or “green card holder” and as such is distinguished from a “non-immigrant” who comes to the United States on a temporary visa. The term “immigrant” is often used more broadly to mean any person who is not a U.S. citizen.

Immigrant intent

The concept under U.S. immigration law that foreign nationals generally intend to remain in the United States permanently (as permanent immigrants) even if they are applying for a temporary, non-immigrant status. Applicants for many forms of non-immigrant visas must overcome the presumption that they possess immigrant intent by proving strong financial and family ties to their home country. Immigrant intent is the primary reason that applications for tourist and student visas are denied by U.S. consulates.

Immigration Court

The administrative court which hears removal and deportation proceedings. Immigration judges have the authority to grant foreign nationals legal status in the United States as well as the authority to order them removed (deported.) Appeals from the immigration courts are heard by the Board of Immigration Appeals.

INS (Or Immigration and Naturalization Service)

In 2003, the federal government restructured and divided the functions of the INS among the following newly created agencies within the Department of Homeland Security (DHS): Customs and Border Protection (CBP), Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Many forms issued by CIS and ICE still bear the logo of the now defunct INS.


Labor certification

The process an employer must go through with the Department of Labor to certify that no American workers are available to fill the job for which the employer is sponsoring a foreign national for legal permanent residence.

Lawful permanent resident

Status granting foreign nationals the right to reside in the U.S. permanently and eventually (if the foreign national so chooses) apply to naturalize as a citizen. Although this status is intended to be permanent, certain actions can lead to a lawful permanent resident being placed in removal proceedings and being deported to his or her home country. These actions include convictions for certain crimes, remaining outside the U.S. for long periods of time, or committing immigration fraud. For in-depth information on the rights and obligations of legal permanent residence see the DHS publication Welcome to the United States: A Guide for New Immigrants.



The process by which a foreign national applies for and obtains U.S. citizenship. Only lawful permanent residents may apply to naturalize, and generally only after they have held their “green card” for five years (spouses of U.S. citizens may apply earlier.) For more information see the DHS publication: A Guide to Naturalization.

Non-immigrant visa

A temporary visa, such as a tourist, student, or skilled worker visa. Its purpose is to allow a foreign national to come to the United States for a limited period of time and for a specific purpose, not to remain in the United States permanently. Many non-immigrant visas require applicants to prove that they do not intend to remain in the U.S. permanently by demonstrating strong economic and family ties to their home country.


Out of status

See “undocumented.”



This term has different meanings under immigration law. It can refer to individuals who are permitted to enter the United States for a limited purpose, such as applying for asylum or to be placed in removal proceedings. It can also refer to the status that individuals who have been released from detention have.

Port of Entry

The port of entry is the airport, seaport, or border crossing through which a foreign national enters the U.S.

Priority Date

For some family-based and some employment-based applications for lawful permanent residence, the date on which the initial part of the application was approved, and which USCIS refers to in determining whether or not a visa is available for the second part of the application process. See the Visa Bulletin for current priority dates in various resident application categories.

Public charge

Most applicants for legal permanent resident status must prove that they are not “likely to become a public charge.” This means they must prove that they can support themselves through employment, assets, or family members and are not likely to require government assistance in the future. See the USCIS Guide on Public Charge for more information on what benefits affect public charge determinations.



For refugee status, an applicant applies outside the United States and must meet the same standard of persecution as an asylum applicant. As a practical matter, it is much more difficult to obtain refugee status based on being LGBT or HIV positive than to obtain asylum.


Removal, formerly called deportation, is a legal proceeding through which immigration officials seek to remove a foreign national from the United States for violating an immigration law or other U.S. law. These proceedings generally take place in immigration court before an immigration judge.


Social Security Number (or SSN)

A number assigned to eligible individuals by the Social Security Administration of the U.S. federal government, primarily so that they can file taxes and pay into the Social Security system. In general, non-citizens can only obtain Social Security numbers if they are authorized by the USCIS to work in the U.S. Social Security cards may be unrestricted, or restricted, meaning its holder can only work with a USCIS issued employment authorization document.


Tax ID or Individual Taxpayer Identification Number (ITIN)

A number issued by the Social Security Administration (SSA) to individuals or entities who are not eligible for Social Security numbers. Some undocumented individuals have successfully used these to pay taxes. There is some risk, however, that SSA or the Internal Revenue Service may share information with the Department of Homeland Security about individuals who use these numbers.

Temporary Protected Status (or TPS)

A blanket, temporary status that the U.S. government occasionally gives to nationals of particular countries that have undergone a natural disaster (such as an earthquake) or other country-wide strife (such as civil war.) The status is good for one year and allows the foreign national to obtain employment authorization. The U.S. determines on an annual basis whether or not to renew the status for nationals of the country. It does not generally lead to permanent status in the U.S.

Three year/Ten year bar

Refers to a harsh change in the immigration law which occurred in 1996 and now provides that any foreign national who accumulates more than 180 months of unlawful presence who then leaves the U.S. cannot return for three years. Likewise, any foreign national who accumulates more than one year of unlawful presence who then leaves the U.S. cannot return for ten years.  Certain hardship waivers may be available to overcome the 3/10 year bar.



The term used to describe foreign nationals who are present in the U.S. without lawful status. The term can refer to those who entered the U.S. without inspection (by crossing the border), those who overstayed their allotted time here, or those who violated the terms of their legal status. With very limited exceptions (notably asylum and immediate relatives of U.S. citizen petitions) a person who is not in lawful status in the U.S. cannot change from being in the U.S. unlawfully to being here lawfully.

United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (or USCIS)

This is the “service” division of the Department of Homeland Security. USCIS handles applications for visas, legal permanent residence, employment authorization, and naturalization. Its website is very useful.

Unlawful presence

Time accumulated in the U.S. after a foreign national’s authorized stay expires. This can lead to problems with the 3 year/10 year bar.



A visa is a legal document that permits its holder to seek entry into the United States on either a temporary or a permanent basis. Legally, a visa merely permits the foreign national to board transportation to the U.S. Permission to enter the country may be granted or denied by immigration officials at the port of entry.  

Visa bulletin

This is a notice by the Department of State that keeps track of an individual’s “priority date.” This is a useful tool to determine when an approved family preference petition (I-130) or employment preference petition is current and whether it is possible to file the I-485 for the “green card.” DOS Visa Bulletin.

Visa Waiver Program (or VWP)

A program through which nationals of certain countries, mostly Western European, may seek entry into the United States for up to 90 days without first obtaining a visa. Visa waiver entrants generally cannot change their status from within the U.S. VWP countries are listed at the Department of State site.

Voluntary Departure

A form of relief given to a foreign national in removal proceedings whereby the individual agrees to leave the United States voluntarily by a specific date rather than being deported directly by the U.S. government. The penalty on returning to the U.S. after departing voluntarily is generally less than if a person is removed at U.S. government expense. Prior to changes in the law in 1996, voluntary departure could also signify a form of humanitarian relief, similar to deferred action, whereby foreign nationals who were too sick to depart the U.S. would be permitted to remain here for two year periods of time.



Application “to waive” or “to forgive” a characteristic that could otherwise lead to a denial of an application. Common reasons for waiver applications include certain criminal convictions and unlawful presence.

Withholding of removal

A form of relief similar to asylum and applied for simultaneously with asylum. Withholding allows a foreign national to remain in the U.S. to avoid persecution in that person’s country of origin. There is no one year filing deadline for withholding, but the standard is higher. Unlike asylum, withholding does not lead to legal permanent residence in the U.S.  In many ways, it is a very limited benefit.