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.”“Immigrant”[Immigrant]“Immigrant”[Immigrant][cat]THEORIES;”Immigrant”[02520][cat]CITIZENSHIP AND NATURALIZATION;”Immigrant”[02520]

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in the form of a visa and green card, or an “illegal immigrant” who has no such documentation or whose documents are outdated.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. Alien;defined“Alien,” from a Latin root meaning “other” or “strange,” designates any person from another country and can theoretically be applied to a person from a country other than the United States who is still in that country. A Refugees;defined“refugee” is legally defined in the United States as someone who has come to the country to avoid persecution in the country of origin on the basis of such issues as race or religion. Therefore, one person can be–and sometimes is–an alien, an immigrant, and a refugee simultaneously.

The Citizenship and Immigration Services, U.S.U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services recognize and define various subcategories of immigrants and immigration. One populous subcategory is that of family-based immigrants, people from other countries who are spouses, fiancés, children, parents, and siblings of U.S. citizens. Another large subcategory is that of employment-based immigrants. These are people who possess job skills and professional expertise that have been deemed especially desirable or needed in the United States–as well as their families. A variation of this latter group is known as investor immigrants: immigrants who are granted visas to begin new businesses in the United States, especially in parts of the country where the economy is sluggish.“Immigrant”[Immigrant]

Further Reading

  • 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.



Illegal immigration

Immigration law

A Nation of Immigrants

Permanent resident status


Resident aliens