Although the United States was created through immigration and has absorbed a steady stream of newcomers from many lands throughout its history, the term “immigrant” remains an often unclear or ambiguous word for many Americans, as does its relationship to a number of kindred words and phrases. Within the United States,“immigrant” has both specific legal denotations and popular connotations that differentiate it from terms such as “migrant,” “refugee,” and “alien.”
The roots of the English word “immigrant” go back to the Latin verb migrare, which meant precisely what its direct descendant “migrate” means in modern English: to move from one locality to another. Thus, movements of people or animals from one place to another are usually called “migrations,” and people who periodically move from one country or region to another are spoken of as “migrants.”
The Latin prefix in- has several uses and connotations. One is what is sometimes called in linguistics illative force, that is, the suggestion of going into a new place or state of being. Another use of in- is intensive in nature; it can lend forcefulness to the word to which it is prefixed. Therefore, “immigration” (in which in- has become im-) implies not only a change in location but also suggests that the change is a significant one, more than likely a permanent one. This, then, is then the definition of “immigrant” in both legal and lexicographical terms: a person who moves from one country to another to take up residence there. However, the term connotes merely a physical change in location, not any change in political allegiance or legality. Consequently, an immigrant may be a naturalized citizen of the United States, a resident alien who lives in the country but maintains citizenship in the home country and who has proper documentation in the form of a visa and green card, or an “illegal immigrant” who has no such documentation or whose documents are outdated. Resident aliens are sometimes also referred to as “landed immigrants” or “permanent residents.”
Of the various words associated with, or similar to, “immigrant,” “immigrant” itself is the broadest term, the generic word for a person who has changed the country of his or her residence.
Beasley, Vanessa. Who Belongs in America? College Station: Texas A&M Press, 2006. Borjas, George J. Heaven’s Door: Immigration Policy and the American Economy. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2001.
A Nation of Immigrants
Permanent resident status