Paths to US immigration

What is the definition of an immigrant? What is the difference between a refugee, asylee and asylum seeker? What is TPS, DACA, and DED? Understand these terms and learn about the various paths to US immigration.


Photo: iStock/McCaig

It’s not always easy to understand the different terms used in US immigration. There are several paths people can take to come to the United States. No US immigration path is easy, and most of them take many years.

Who is a refugee?

According to both the United Nations 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and the US Immigration and Nationality Act, a refugee is someone who has left the country of his or her nationality for fear of being persecuted because of his or her race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion. A refugee can get official refugee status by applying to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), If accepted, the refugee will be resettled through an agreed process in another country. Learn more about the US resettlement process.

Who is an asylee?

An asylee is similar to a refugee in that asylees must meet the criteria set out in the UN1951 Convention as a person who needs protection, or asylum, in a country other than their own. The two terms are interchangeable in terms of legal status. Generally, however, a refugee means someone who applies to come and is accepted to the USA overseas, through the refugee program, while an asylee means someone who applies at or from inside the US border and is granted asylum within the USA.

asylum process overview diagram
Overview of the asylum and refugee process in the USA, courtesy of Human Rights First

Who is an asylum seeker?

An asylum seeker is a person who is seeking protection from persecution in another country from inside the United States or at the border. Asylum is a right under international law, but it is becoming increasingly hard to make an asylum application at the US border, and even harder to be accepted. For this reason there are many asylum seekers in the United States who are undocumented immigrants. Learn about the asylum process.

Who is an unaccompanied minor?

An unaccompanied minor is a child who arrives in the United States alone. The law uses the term “unaccompanied alien child” (UAC) if they are under 18 years old, with no parent or guardian in the country, and no lawful status. Unaccompanied minors have some protections over and above standard refugee protections – for example if they are considered to be abandoned, or if they are victims of human trafficking. In the first 11 months of FY 2019, there were almost 73,000 unaccompanied minors apprehended at the US border. Almost all of them came from Guatemala, Honduras, or El Salvador. Read the 2019 report prepared for Congress.

This chart shows apprehensions of unaccompanied minors and their referral to the Office of Refugee Resettlement, which handles child custody. Chart courtesy of the Congressional Research Service using data from the Department of Health and Human Services.

Who is a DACA recipient or Dreamer?

DACA stands for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. DACA recipients, also called Dreamers, are children or adults who came to the USA as young children. Technically, DACA recipients are unauthorized immigrants, but they have temporary permission to live and work in the USA. DACA protects them from deportation until their status is changed or resolved in some other way. DACA recipients have to re-apply every two years to remain in the program. There is an as-yet-undecided case before the US Supreme Court concerning the future of the DACA program.

Who is a TPS or DED holder?

TPS stands for Temporary Protected Status. DED stands for Deferred Enforced Departure. Like DACA, TPS and DED give protection from deportation and work permits to groups of immigrants who would otherwise be considered unauthorized. Currently, people from 11 countries qualify for TPS and DED – all 11 except Liberia are in the TPS program. Liberia is a DED program, and Liberian DED holders have been offered a path to permanent residence when their DED status expires. TPS and DED holders are long-standing residents, many of whom have raised families in the USA. The current administration plans to wind down all the TPS programs over the next few years. If this happens, people in these programs will have to change their status or leave the USA.

Who is a stateless person?

According to international law, a stateless person is “a person who is not considered as a national by any State under the operation of its law.” It could be a person who has no nationality or a person who cannot prove their nationality. We don’t know how many stateless people are in the USA. The United States does not offer residency to people within its borders on the grounds that they are stateless, but some are eligible for asylum or other protected status. Learn more about statelessness in the USA.

Who is an immigrant?

An immigrant is anyone who comes to a country to live, having been born and lived somewhere else. The United States has a large and diverse population of immigrants and, except for Native Americans, everyone who lives in the country is either an immigrant or descended from immigrants. The term includes everyone from migrant workers to refugees to US citizens, but is often used to mean authorized permanent immigrants who are not refugees or asylees. Learn more about visas, residency and citizenship for immigrants.

Who is undocumented, unauthorized, or illegal?

Undocumented, unauthorized and illegal are all US immigration terms for people who live in the United States without a visa or residency status such as citizenship or permanent legal residency (a green card). The government’s term for this status is illegal alien. Agencies working in the field of US immigration with people who have no papers usually use the terms undocumented or unauthorized and immigrants or residents instead of illegal and aliens. There are an estimated 11 million such residents in the USA. Learn more about undocumented immigrants.

Who is a legal permanent resident or green card holder?

A “green card” is the ID card issued to a legal permanent resident. it is the path to permanent US immigration. There are a number of ways to qualify for a green card, but the process is long. Getting a green card, however, is an important step towards citizenship for any immigrant. There are more than 12 million lawful permanent residents in the United States and many more eligible to apply. Learn more about visas, residency and citizenship.

Who is a naturalized citizen?

A naturalized citizen is an immigrant who acquires US citizenship – in other words a person who acquires citizenship rather than one who is born with the right. A naturalized citizen has all the rights of citizenship except the right to become president because only those who are born US citizens have the right to become president. There were 21 to 22 million naturalized citizens in the United States in 2020.