Behind the Words

Widespread misunderstanding and misuse of immigration lingo makes intelligent debate of the immigration issue challenging. For example, the word “immigrant” is used incorrectly by many to describe anyone present in the United States who hails from another country. It carries negative connotations, too: many people blame our country’s woes – crime, poverty, high unemployment, etc. on immigrants.

The dictionary definition of “immigrant” is much narrower and suggests relatively honorable conduct. defines an immigrant as “a person who migrates to another country, usually for permanent residence.” Since migration, in today’s world, requires compliance with intricate laws and regulations, immigrants are persons who, by definition, have complied with the immigration law.

Who, then, are the “illegal immigrants” that everyone loves to hate? I suppose that term refers to persons who enter the United States without authorization or stay beyond the date by which they are to leave. They really are not immigrants at all but immigration violators and are more accurately referred to as illegal or undocumented “aliens.” The term “alien,” in the immigration law and means non-citizens.

Another term useful to the immigration discussion is “non-immigrant,” which is an alien who enters the United States with the intention of staying temporarily. Non-immigrants include visitors, foreign students and temporary workers.

In 2010, it is likely that Congress will consider major changes to our immigration laws. There are two sides to the immigration coin. Changes to our immigration system that make it easier for talented, law-abiding persons to immigrate to the United States or to enter as non-immigrants for a limited period of time are as important to the welfare of our country as are changes that deter abuse of our immigration laws.

As the immigration debates heat up, we need to be mindful of generalizations and terminology which may be not only inaccurate but also a smokescreen intended to confuse the facts and conceal prejudice toward non-citizens.

This article should not be relied upon as legal advice. Consult an immigration attorney for advice specific to your situation.