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Immigration is an incredibly complex topic to understand. There are so many different terms and jargon that gets thrown around when the media and policymakers are talking about immigration. It can be hard for a non-attorney to understand.

Language is important, both in advocating for effective policy change and amplifying the experiences of survivors. Words can be weaponized to support a narrative of danger and fear around immigration – like calling people seeking safety at our borders a “flood” or a “surge.” Our language can instead be used to humanize people and accurately tell their stories.

To understand important immigration policy debates, we all need to have a basic understanding of the vocabulary of immigration.

Here are 15 immigration and asylum-related terms that you should know with simple definitions.

  • Asylum – a form of protection which allows an individual to remain in the United States instead of being removed (deported) to a country where he or she fears persecution or harm. Under U.S. law, people who flee their countries because they fear persecution can apply for asylum in the United States or at a port of entry. (UNHCR)
  • An asylee, or a person granted asylum, is someone who is granted refugee status while located in their destination country. Asylees are authorized to work in the United States, may apply for a social security card, may request permission to travel overseas, and can petition to bring family members to the United States. (UNHCR)
  • Credible/Reasonable Fear Interview – One of the first steps in the asylum process, which depends on the way you entered the country. Credible fear interviews are provided to people who travel to the United States and are detained at ports of entry. Reasonable fear interviews are provided to people who have been deported and returned to the United States. Both types of interviews are typically conducted by asylum officers. (Immigration Justice Campaign)
  • Deportation, known as “removal” under federal immigration law, is the process of removing a person who does not have lawful status in the United States, often by transporting him or her to his or her country of origin. (Justicia)
  • Deterrence-based policies– policies that aim to stop migrants from reaching US borders. These policies have increasingly defined the US government’s approach to migration and asylum. (Tahirih)
  • Gender-based violence is any harmful threat or act directed at an individual or group based on their sex, gender identity and/or expression, sexual orientation, and/or lack of adherence to socially constructed norms around masculinity and femininity. Gender-based violence can take many forms, including physical, emotional, sexual, or psychological harm. While it disproportionately affects women and girls, it can also affect men and boys and LGBTQIA+ people. Tahirih serves anyone who is a survivor of gender-based violence regardless of their sex or gender identity.
  • Grounds for Asylum – A claim of persecution must be made on one of the five “protected grounds”: race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group. (CFR)
  • Forced marriage is a marriage that takes place without the full and free consent of one or both parties. Forced marriage can happen to an individual of any gender, age, ethnicity, and cultural or religious background. A forced marriage may be one that is threatened, or one that has already taken place. (Tahirih)
  • Human trafficking is defined as the use of force, fraud, or coercion to obtain some type of labor or services or commercial sex acts. There are two primary types of human trafficking, forced labor and sex trafficking. Trafficking may involve crossing an international border, but it can also occur within a country. Traffickers may use violence, manipulation, romantic relationships, or false promises of a well-paying job to lure people into trafficking situations.
  • An Internally Displaced Person, also known as IDP, is someone who has been forced to flee their home but never crosses an international border. These individuals seek safety anywhere they can find it—in nearby towns, schools, settlements, internal camps, even forests and fields. (UN)
  • Migrant – a person who moves away from his or her place of usual residence, whether within a country or across an international border, temporarily or permanently, and for a variety of reasons. (IOM)
  • Naturalization – This is the process by which a foreign-born individual becomes a citizen of the United States. To naturalize, generally, immigrants must be at least 18 years old; have been lawful permanent residents of the United States for five years (three years if married to a U.S. citizen); demonstrate continuous residence and physical presence in the US for a required period of time demonstrate a basic knowledge of English, American government and history; and have good moral character. (NCSL)
  • Particular social group – One of five categories used to claim refugee and asylum status, often described as a group sharing a common characteristic that is so fundamental to their individual identities that the members cannot—or should not be expected to—change it. Under current U.S. law, claims for asylum due to gender-based violence often use gender as a particular social group.
  • Persecution – the intentional and severe deprivation of fundamental rights contrary to international law by reason of the group or collectivity. (ICC)
  • Refugee – someone who has been forced to flee his or her country because of persecution, war or violence. A refugee has a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group. (UN)