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From asylum to visa: know your immigration vocabulary

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With immigration omnipresent in international news headlines and El Paso-Juarez’s position as the literal stage on which policy debates take place, we thought it’d be a good time to provide a refresher on the vocabulary of immigration. We want to demystify loaded terminology and assess the political baggage it carries.

When it comes to immigration, misinformation can be deadly. Inaccurate claims stoking xenophobia and racism have consequences for people seeking safe haven in the United States. Consequently, being able to disentangle rhetoric from fact has high stakes, especially for fronterizos who navigate the machinery of international border policy on a daily basis.

Common points of confusion

What’s the difference between deportation and expulsion?  

When a foreign national is deported, they are formally removed from the country for any number of violations of immigration or criminal law. This process is also called “removal,” and is largely a permanent decision. As part of the deportation process, the person is first admitted into the United States and appears before a judge in a hearing. In contrast, people who are expelled from the country (under Title 42 for example), do not receive an order of deportation and do not have the ability to make their case before an immigration judge prior to the decision being made. The process of rapid expulsion under Title 42 has been under fire and faced legal challenges, with critics contending it violates existing laws regarding the right to seek asylum

Why is the term “illegal alien” no longer allowed in U.S. immigration official documents?

The Biden administration has been changing recommended language connected to immigration recently, ordering immigration agencies to use the term “undocumented noncitizen” instead of “illegal alien” and “integration” instead of “assimilation.” These moves come as part of a stated mission of building a more humane immigration system, which some have said is connected to a broader effort responding to the Trump-era approach of political language. Critics of the new guidelines, like Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas, described the move as an “obsession with political correctness,” while advocates like Define American say that the language used around immigration carries wide-ranging and meaningful impacts for the people it describes, and should be employed carefully.

Are asylum-seekers and refugees the same thing? 

In short, no. With the Biden administration’s recent vacillation over a cap on the number of refugees admitted to the United States, confusion abounded about who is included in that refugee category. All refugees seek asylum, but not all asylum seekers will be officially recognized as refugees. Being granted asylee or refugee status in a country is contingent on that person meeting the legal definition of refugee, which is codified in domestic and international law as being someone who “is unable or unwilling to return to his or her country of nationality because of persecution or a well-founded fear of persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion.”  In U.S. immigration law, refugee status and asylee status are distinct, even though both statuses must meet the legal definition of refugee. Individuals must apply for refugee status from outside the United States, while they may apply for asylum from within the country. 

Immigration glossary

Alien: U.S. legal code defines an alien as “any person not a citizen or national of the United States.” But the Biden administration recently ordered that agencies like Customs and Border Protection and Immigration and Customs Enforcement stop using the term, recommending instead that “noncitizen” or “migrant” be used. The memo said “the words we use matter and will serve to further confer that dignity to those in our custody.” Using “alien” or “illegal alien” to refer to immigrants in the United States was commonplace until recently by immigration officials and former President Trump, and advocates have condemned the use of terms like “alien” as having a derogatory and dehumanizing effect. 

Asylum: The right to asylum has been enshrined by countries around the world for centuries, and was codified in the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. Asylum is a protection afforded by sovereign nations when someone deemed a refugee (see below) is fleeing persecution in their home country. People have a legal right to come to the United States seeking asylum, and the United States has firmly established legal obligations when it comes to asylum-seekers through both international and domestic laws.  When someone is granted asylum, they are protected from being removed to their home country, are able to work in the United States, and can apply to have family members join them. Eventually, they can apply for citizenship. In order to qualify for asylum under U.S. law, the person must meet the legal definition of refugee, which is someone outside of their country of origin who is “unwilling or unable to return because of persecution or a well-founded fear of persecution based on:  race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion.” Asylum is increasingly difficult to obtain in the United States; in fiscal year 2020, more than 70% of applications were denied. Going through the process can take years. Immigration courts currently have a backlog of 1.3 million cases.

Credible fear: A key part of the asylum process is an interview that takes place between a foreign national and an asylum officer over whether or not they have a credible fear of persecution or torture if they were to be sent back to their home country. This interview is part of a screening process for determining whether someone can receive asylum; if the asylum officer determines that the person does have a credible fear of persecution, then they will be referred to an immigration judge for a hearing. With Title 42 rapid expulsions (see below), immigration advocates have said that migrants are not receiving credible fear interviews prior to being expelled. 

Deportation: Deportation is the formal removal of a foreign national from the country for any number of violations of immigration or criminal law. This process is also called “removal.” Although deportation orders do not expire, it is possible in some cases (though difficult) to apply for reentry and renewed legal status after several years have passed. 

Border Patrol agents take a group of migrants into custody beneath the Stanton Street Bridge on April 3. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

Expulsion: A rapid process of removing foreign nationals from the country, notably used as part of Title 42 (see below), suspending the asylum process for those coming to the United States fleeing persecution with the justification of public health necessity because of the COVID-19 pandemic. A lawsuit brought against the government by the American Civil Liberties Union claims that this manner of expulsion of foreign nationals is a violation of existing laws that mandate the right to seek asylum and not be removed to countries where the individual would face persecution. A new report found at least 492 cases of violence against asylum seekers who had been expelled to Mexico under Title 42. 

Forced migration: Also called forced displacement, the term is used to describe circumstances where the decision to migrate is not wholly voluntary or even preferred — it is spurred instead by urgent conditions affecting basic survival such a violence or environmental catastrophe. Migration by refugees would typically be described as forced displacement. Although the term is often used by social scientists to differentiate motivations for migration, it is not a legal term and the definitions of what constitutes forced migration can vary based on the source or context. Worldwide, there were at least 100 million people forcibly displaced between 2010 and 2019 according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees

Fraihat: Shortly after the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, medical experts and immigrant advocates began to raise alarms regarding protections for medically vulnerable people held in detention by Immigration and Customs Enforcement as the disease began to spread within detention facilities. In April 2020, a federal court found that ICE had placed detainees at “substantial risk of harm” and shown “medical indifference” in their response to the COVID-19 pandemic. This federal court ruling, Fraihat v. ICE, established guidelines that ICE is required to follow in its treatment of medically vulnerable immigrants in the context of the pandemic. Referred to colloquially as Fraihat, El Paso area immigration lawyers have claimed that ICE is not following Fraihat rules with their clients, causing added harm. 

Green card: Also known as a Permanent Resident Card, possessing a green card means that you have permanent legal status to live and work in the United States. There are a wide range of ways that a person may become eligible for green card status, including through asylee or refugee designation. 

Migrant Protection Protocols: Also known as “Remain in Mexico,” the contentious Trump-era Migrant Protection Protocols program sent nearly 70,000 asylum seekers to Mexico to await their immigration court date. Although the program was suspended by the Biden administration, many thousands of people enrolled in the program are still waiting in cities in Northern Mexico for their case to be processed. The program has been widely condemned by human rights groups for its exposure of vulnerable migrants to crime and violent persecution. More than 1,500 cases of murder, rape, torture, kidnapping and violent assaults have been reported by migrants stuck in Mexico through MPP, including more than 300 cases of children being kidnapped. 

Northern Triangle: The Central American countries El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras are sometimes referred to as “the Northern Triangle” in the context of migration. In recent years, increased numbers of people have been emigrating from these countries in particular, seeking relief from poverty, violence and corruption, and environmental crises connected to climate change. The history of U.S. foreign policy interventions in all three countries, including support of brutal (and at times genocidal) military regimes, has contributed to high rates of instability, crime and corruption in these countries. Drug trafficking through the Central American corridor en route to the United States — the world’s largest consumer market for illegal narcotics — further destabilizes the region. 

A Border Patrol agent expels a group of migrants into Juárez at the Paso del Norte Bridge on Feb. 26. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

Refugee: A refugee is someone who “is unable or unwilling to return to his or her country of nationality because of persecution or a well-founded fear of persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion.” The forced displacement of people has been growing in recent years, with climate change, political instability and violence fueling increased numbers of refugees seeking relief from persecution. Until relatively recently, the United States had offered refuge to a greater number of people than all other countries combined. But refugee resettlement numbers during the Trump administration dropped to all-time lows, negating the U.S.’s role as a leader in refugee admissions.

Title 42: In March 2020, the Trump administration employed a little known public health provision, section 265 of U.S. health code 42, as a way to largely shut down the asylum process at the nation’s borders. Under the premise of fighting the spread of COVID-19, immigration agents began to rapidly expel migrants without giving them access to the established asylum process. The Biden administration has faced significant pressure for not halting the directive, and criticism for the adverse human rights implications of its continued use on vulnerable asylum seekers and the violence many face upon being expelled

Visa: A visa is a document issued to a foreign national giving them permission to travel within the United States. There are two categories of visas: those for immigrants, and those for non-immigrants. For immigrants, their visa provides legal status to work and permanently reside in the United States. For nonimmigrants, visas may be issued for tourism, short-term work or medical treatment. 

Cover photo: A Border Patrol agent directs migrants expelled under Title 42 into Juárez on March 24. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

This story was produced as part of the Puente News Collaborative, a binational partnership of news organizations in Ciudad Juárez and El Paso.
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René Kladzyk

René Kladzyk is a musician and writer based in El Paso. She performs original music as Ziemba, and has written for publications including Teen Vogue, i-D, and The Creative Independent. Her new album came out on Sister Polygon Records in September 2020, and she is hopeful that we’ll be able to enjoy live music together IRL again soon enough.

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