Immigration Basics

by George Barron

Immigration is a hot topic these days, and the law regarding immigration is very complex. Knowing some of the basic concepts can make it easier to follow the debate.

Citizens. Most of the people in the United States are citizens. All persons born in the United States and its territories including Puerto Rico, are citizens of the US regardless of the immigration status or nationality of their parents.

A non-citizen can become a citizen through a process called “naturalization”. Those who meet the requirements for naturalization, including passing a written test of US history and government and taking an oath of allegiance, may become naturalized citizens .

Permanent Residents. Permanent residents have permission to live and work in the US indefinitely. The card that is used to prove permanent residency is called a “green card”, even though it hasn’t been green in many years. Permanent residents can be removed from the US if they commit certain serious crimes.

Immigrants People who come to the US with the intent to stay are called immigrants. Immigrants include people who come here to join their family members, certain people who come here to work, people who come here to escape persecution in their home country and people who are lucky enough to win the “visa lottery”.


Non-immigrants are people who are in the US temporarily – usually to visit, work or study.

“Illegal immigrants” and “illegal aliens”

These terms are not defined by the immigration code, but they are generally used to describe people present in the US without permission. It includes two main groups: people who enter the US without permission, and people who enter with permission to stay temporarily, then “overstay” – meaning they do not leave when they are supposed to.

People in both situations can sometimes become “legal” while they are in the US – if they qualify to adjust their status.

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