A glossary of terms relevant to the study of U.S. immigration.

abolitionist movement.

Early nineteenth movement seeking to end slavery in the United States.

accent discrimination.

Accent discriminationNegative discrimination against persons with foreign-sounding accents.


AcculturationProcess whereby immigrants adopt the culture of their new country, altering but not obliterating their original cultural patterns.

acquired citizenship.

Acquired citizenshipCitizenship conferred on children born overseas to parent(s) holding U.S. citizenship.

affirmative action.

Affirmative actionPolicies applied by government agencies, educational institutions, private businesses, and other organizations to increase representation of members of specified minority groups.

alien land laws.

State laws limiting land ownership by noncitizens, particularly Asian immigrants.


Noncitizens within a country.


AmerasiansPersons born to mothers in Asian countries whose fathers are Americans. Under U.S. law, certain Amerasians are given preference for admission into the country.


AmnestyPermission for an illegal or undocumented immigrant to legally remain in the United States.


Tendency of immigrants to subordinate their native cultural heritage to the core Anglo-Protestant culture of the United States.

antimiscegenation laws.

Antimiscegenation lawsLaws banning interracial marriages.


AssimilationProcess whereby members of immigrant groups gradually replace their original cultures with those of their new homelands.


AsylumLegal status of foreigners, or asylees, in the United States who cannot or will not return to their home countries because of persecution or reasonable fear of persecution. Such persons are eligible to apply for permanent resident status after one year of continuous residence.

au pairs.

Au pairsForeign nationals–typically young women–who live in the homes of American families, caring for children and performing light household chores in exchange for room and board and the opportunity to learn the English language and become familiar with American culture.


BarriosPredominantly Hispanic neighborhoods. See also ghettoes.

bilingual education.

Classroom instruction in two different languages, either as a means of assisting students not yet conversant in the primary language of instruction or as a method of cultivating bilingualism in all students.

birth rule.

Birth ruleLegal principle holding that an individual’s origins are determinable by birthplace and not by last place of residence.

boat people.

Boat peopleAsylum-seekers or refugees who desperately flee their home countries in what are often makeshift or otherwise unseaworthy boats. The term is especially associated with Haitians, Cubans, and Southeast Asians.

Border Patrol, U.S.

Principal federal law-enforcement agency responsible for policing U.S. borders.


BracerosMexican farm laborers employed as guest workers in the United States between 1942 and 1964, as part of the Labor Importation Program, commonly known as the bracero program.

brain drain.

“Brain drain”[Brain drain]Also called human capital flight, the phenomenon in which educated, skilled persons emigrate from underdeveloped to developed countries.

capitation taxes.

Capitation taxesFixed-rate direct taxes on individuals; also known as poll taxes and head taxes.

certificates of citizenship.

Certificates of citizenshipDocuments issued to naturalized and derivative citizens as proof of their American citizenship.

chain migration.

Chain migrationProcess whereby members of a certain community eventually follow other members of that community to a new locale, often encouraged by positive reports sent and social-economic-cultural support networks established by the pioneering immigrants.


ChicanoMexican American. Chicana is the feminine form.


Membership in a political community, usually conferring rights such as suffrage and obligations such as taxes. Citizenship is usually determined by place of birth but can be acquired through naturalization.


“Coolies”[coolies]Historic term for manual workers from Asia. During the nineteenth century United States it specifically denoted Chinese laborers and had racist connotations.


“Coyotes”[coyotes]Slang for persons paid to smuggle immigrants into the United States from Mexico.


CreolesPersons of mixed European, Native American, or African ancestry, often evincing a hybridized culture.

cultural pluralism.

Concept holding that members of individual ethnic groups should be able to live on their own terms within the larger society while retaining their unique cultural heritages.

deportable alien.

Alien subject to deportation for any number of violations of United States immigration law.


DeportationLegal process whereby an alien is removed from the United States for certain violations of United States immigration law. Also currently called removal.

derivative citizenship.

Derivative citizenshipU.S. citizenship conferred on children through the naturalization of their parents or through adoption by citizens.

displaced persons (DPs).

Displaced personsRefugees who are forced to leave their homelands. The term was used extensively in reference to European refugees of the World War II era.

domestic workers.

Domestic workersPersons who work in private households, performing cooking, cleaning, child care, gardening, and other tasks.

dual citizenship.

Dual citizenshipCondition in which one holds citizenship in two countries.

due process of the law, procedural.

Due processApplication of fair and established procedures.

due process of the law, substantive.

Protecting the substance of liberty and property.


Leaving one country in order to immigrate to another.


Persons residing outside their native countries.

employer sanctions.

Civil fines or criminal penalties against employers who hire undocumented workers.

English as a second language (ESL).

Language-instruction programs for immigrants whose native languages are not English.

ethnic enclaves.

Ethnic enclavesNeighborhoods that are populated primarily by members of single ethnic groups, whose native communities they tend to resemble.

ethnic group.

[]Ethnic groupGroup of humans who share and accept a common identity because of cultural affinities and real or perceived common ancestry.


Theory and practice of attempting to improve the overall genetic quality of a human population through selective breeding.


Official denial of entry into the United States, after due process as defined by current immigration law.


ExilesPersons prevented from returning to their homelands for political or legal reasons.


Within modern political debate over immigration in the United States, a person who wants to maintain or increase the numbers of visas granted to permanent residents.


ExpatriatesAny persons residing in countries other than their own homelands.


FoodwaysTerm used by social scientists to describe the many social, cultural, and economic practices associated with the production, preparation, and consumption of food.


GenocideSystematic attempt to annihilate all members of a race, ethnicity, or nation.

Gentlemen’s Agreement.

Informal 1907 agreement between Japan and the United States regarding Japanese immigration to the United States.


GhettoesItalian term originally applied to districts within European cities in which Jews were required to live. In modern usage, the term is applied to any depressed urban neighborhood that is occupied predominantly by members of a single minority group.

Great Irish Famine.

Blight that wiped out most of Ireland’s potato crop from 1845 to 1852.

green card.

Common name for a permanent resident card, an identification card issued to permanent residents by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services and formerly by the Immigration and Naturalization Service.

guest worker.

Foreigner who works in another country–usually legally–as a temporary resident.


HispanicTerm denoting persons from Spanish- or Portuguese-speaking countries, especially Latin American countries. From the Latin word Hispania for the Iberian Peninsula, which encompasses both Spain and Portugal. See also Latinos.


Systematic attempt by Germany’s Nazi regime to exterminate European Jews from the late 1930’s to the end of World War II in 1945.

host country.

Country in which a person stays without being a national of that country.

identificational assimilation.

Late stage of assimilation in which members of a minority group, such as newly arrived immigrants, develop a sense of peoplehood based exclusively on their host society.

illegal immigrants.

Colloquial term for aliens who circumvent or break national immigration laws to enter, reside in, or work in another country.


Any person who has moved from an original homeland to another state or country.

immigrant advantage.

Term used within sociology to describe distinctions among minority groups within a larger society and those peoples who immigrate to these societies voluntarily from other nations.

immigrant removal/immigrant return.

Official federal government terms for deportation.


Incoming movement of peoples and individuals across international boundaries, usually with intention of establishing permanent residence.

immigration lawyers.

Attorneys who specialize in representing immigrants.

immigration wave.

Immigration waves;definedPeriod during which the level of immigration increases markedly–either for all immigration or for the immigration of a single group or category.


Status of an alien who does not meet the criteria for entry into the United States. Formerly classified as “excludable.”

indentured servants.

Immigrants who bind themselves as servants for specified periods of time after their arrival–either to pay for their transportation or to work off penalties for legal infractions.


Process whereby immigrants find places for themselves within the cultural, social, and economic fabrics of their new homeland.


First-generation Japanese immigrant.


LatinosPersons of Hispanic background. Most commonly applied to nonimmigrants but also often applied to immigrants. Latinas is the feminine form. See also Hispanic.

“likely to become a public charge” test (LPC).

One of the standards that immigrants seeking permanent resident status in the United States must meet, by proving that they have sufficient means of financial support so they are not likely to require extensive government assistance in the future.

literacy tests.

Tests of reading and writing fluency administered to immigrants seeking to attain U.S. citizenship.

loyalty oaths.

Required expressions of allegiance to a country or government that are often employed to test the loyalty of immigrants.

machine politics.

Machine politicsPolitical system in which influential “bosses” or a group of politicians maintain their positions and power by distributing patronage and other rewards to their supporters.

mail-order brides.

Women who advertise themselves as available for marriage to eligible men in other countries, often for the purpose of immigration. See also marriages of convenience; picture brides.

marriages of convenience.

Marriages entered into, not for love, but for the financial, social, or legal benefits for one or both parties. In the context of immigration, such marriages–between nationals and aliens–are entered into to improve the legal immigration status of the latter, a practice that is illegal in many countries.

melting pot.

Term–now often considered outdated and oversimplified–for the process whereby diverse immigrant groups are transformed culturally, socially, and politically into Americans.

middleman minority.

Immigrant or minority population whose members perform specialized “middleman” roles in an economy, often serving as economic intermediaries between dominant and subordinate populations.

migrant superordination.

Process through which immigrants use force to overwhelm and subdue the original inhabitants of the territories they settle.


Movement of individuals and peoples from one location to another, though not necessarily across international boundaries.


MiscegenationMarriage or sexual relations between members of groups regarded as different races.

model minority.

“Model minorities”[Model minorities]Minority group that achieves–or is perceived to achieve–a higher degree of success than the population at large. Often applied to the Asian American community, many members of which regard the designation as a stereotype.


In certain nativist ideologies, the alleged process whereby unchecked immigration leads to the debasement of a native population’s culture and racial “purity.”

moral turpitude.

“Moral turpitude”[moral turpitude]Broad class of crimes, which under United States immigration law might lead to the curtailment of certain immigration benefits or even to the deportation of an alien or permanent resident. These are normally crimes of dishonesty, such as tax evasion; immorality, such as drug violations; or violence, such as sexual assault.


Ideology or policy that stresses the acceptance and full incorporation in society of a multiplicity of cultures.


Formal relationship between a person and a state, the latter of which exercises jurisdiction over the former. Nationality does not necessarily imply citizenship, which generally confers the right to participate in political processes.


Political ideology that holds that immigration–or immigration from certain countries–is economically, politically, socially, and/or culturally detrimental to a native-born population.


Process of conferring citizenship upon an alien.

naturalization court.

Any court authorized to confer American citizenship on an alien.


Terrorist attacks on the United States of September 11, 2001.


Second-generation Japanese immigrant.


Alien who seeks temporary entry into the United States for a particular purpose, such as tourism or participation in a guest-worker program.


Padrone systemItalian term for an exploitative employer or manager of immigrant workers. Especially associated with Italian immigration in North America during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

paper sons.

Chinese immigrants who took advantage of the destruction of government birth records during the San Francisco earthquake of 1906 to claim they were American citizens because they had been born in the United States.

parachute children.

Parachute childrenInformal term for the children of wealthy foreign–usually East Asian–parents, who are sent to schools in the United States, where they live on their own with little or no adult supervision.


Generic term for any person paroled from jail or detention. In the context of immigration law, an alien who would normally be inadmissible to the country who is permitted to enter the United States for humanitarian reasons or for reason of the public good.


Document issued by a national government for the purpose of facilitating international travel by its nationals that attests to the identity and nationality of the holder.

Pennsylvania Dutch.

German-speaking immigrants who first settled in Pennsylvania. “Dutch” is an English corruption of the German word for German, Deutsche.

peripheral nations.

Term used by some social scientists for poor, less economically diversified countries, heavily influenced by the policies and economic needs of core nations.

permanent resident.

Alien permitted to reside and work indefinitely in the United States.

permanent resident card.

See green card.

picture brides.

Japanese and Korean women who married fellow countrymen who preceded them to the United States during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The men typically selected their brides from sets of photographs. See also mail-order brides.

port of entry.

Any location in the United States designated as an official point of entry and processing for aliens and U.S. citizens.

pull factors.

Factors outside a person’s own homeland that tend to encourage emigration–for example, economic opportunities or the presence of a sympathetic religious community at the target destination.

push factors.

Factors within a person’s own homeland that tend to encourage migration–for example, limited economic opportunities or religious persecution.

quota system.

Limits placed on the number of United States visas issued to aliens of certain nationalities.

racial profiling.

Controversial practice Racial profilingin which law-enforcement officials use ethnic/racial characteristics as indicators of potential criminality.

Red Scare.

Brief period after World War I when public hysteria fueled by Russia’s Bolshevik Revolution led to government harassment of radicals, trade unionists, and political dissidents–particularly those of foreign birth.


Indentured servants during the colonial era who sold themselves into servitude upon reaching their destinations in order to pay for their transatlantic passages. Redemptioners’ indentures were sometimes purchased by relatives or friends already in the colonies.

refugee fatigue.

Reluctance of countries to host ever-growing numbers of refugees and asylees.


Refugees;definedEmigrants who flee their homelands to escape from wars, various forms of persecution, famines, or other dire circumstances.


Money sent by immigrants to friends and relatives in their home countries.


Expulsion of aliens from the United States after they are adjudged inadmissible or deportable. Those removed cannot apply for readmission for five years. Formerly–and still informally–called deportation.


Permanent relocation of refugees within a host country.

resident aliens.

Term informally applied to immigrants who reside in the United States for long periods without obtaining citizenship.


Within the context of modern political debate over immigration in the United States, a person who wants to reduce the numbers of visas granted to permanent residents.

return immigrants.

Immigrants who return to their countries of origin permanently or for indefinite periods.

sanctuary movement.

Underground humanitarian movement of the 1980’s–mostly centered in churches–in which Central American refugees were sheltered from the INS.


Period of adjustment to the climate and sicknesses of a new country–often used in reference to immigrants in colonial America.

segmented assimilation.

Process whereby immigrants absorb select elements of their new country’s culture while retaining certain elements of their original culture.

selective inclusion.

Process whereby a native population permits immigrants to occupy certain socioeconomic positions while purposefully excluding them from others.

settlement houses.

Neighborhood centers that provided community services to residents of economically depressed areas of cities during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.


SnakeheadSlang for a person paid to smuggle Asian immigrants into the United States.

social mobility.

Social mobilityAbility to move from one socioeconomic level to another, generally in an upward direction.

special immigrants.

Special immigrantsClasses of immigrants who are, under U.S. law, free from quota limitations, such as physicians and former employees of the U.S. government.


SponsorsPetitioners to the U.S. government on behalf of immigrants or prospective immigrants. Typically family members, friends, or employers, sponsors sometimes file affidavits of support, attesting that they personally will ensure that the immigrants do not become public charges.

stateless person.

StatelessnessPerson without a specific nationality.


Practice of assigning to all members of a group–particularly an ethnic or racial group–the same characteristics on the assumption that all members of the group share these traits.


StowawaysPersons who attempt to travel secretly on ships, planes, or other forms of transportation, often for the purpose of entering other countries illegally.


Term originally applied to crowded urban workplaces in which piecework farmed out by manufacturers was done by low-wage employees; in modern usage, the term has come to be applied to almost any crowded workplace with unsafe and unsanitary working conditions.

temporary protected status (TPS).

Temporary protected statusTemporary refugee status granted to aliens by the U.S. attorney general. TPS generally lasts six to eighteen months, although extensions may be granted. Any removal procedures are usually suspended in cases of TPS.


Acts of violence designed to terrorize or coerce members of a community or nation.

trafficking (in persons).

Inveigling or forcing of persons into traveling to other countries where they are exploited as prostitutes or made to endure other forms of slavery.

transit aliens.

Transit aliensNonimmigrant aliens–traveling with or without visas–who are merely passing through the United States. Such aliens are prohibited by law from lingering in the country beyond short, specified periods of time.


TransnationalismPhenomenon or process in which immigrants retain close economic, political, and social ties with their country of origin.

unauthorized alien (or immigrant).

Alternative official term for an undocumented alien.

undesirable aliens.

“Undesirable aliens”[Undesirable aliens]Aliens considered inadmissible or removable for one or more reasons, such as carrying communicable diseases, having mental deficiencies, or presenting high probabilities of becoming public charges or engaging in criminal behaviors.

undocumented alien (or immigrant).

Immigrant residing in the United States without proper legal documentation. Preferred alternative to “illegal alien,” a term that some people believe conveys negative connotations.


VisasLegal document, or, more commonly, endorsement stamped on passports, permitting an alien to enter other countries.

voluntary departure.

Voluntary departure of a removable alien from the United States without an order of removal. Such a person may reapply for admission into the country at any time.

war brides.

War bridesWomen who marry foreign service personnel stationed in their countries during and immediately after times of war and who typically immigrate to their spouses’ countries. Immigration laws pertaining to “war brides” also encompass husbands.


“Wetbacks”[wetbacks]Obsolete pejorative term for immigrants–particularly Mexicans–who entered the United States illegally. The expression derives from Mexicans who entered by the United States by wading across the Rio Grande.


Fear of foreigners.

yellow peril.

Racist metaphor for the alleged threat that East Asian–and especially Chinese–immigrants posed to white, Western civilization during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Also applied to Japan and the Japanese during the World War II era.