Immigration Glossary

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  • accents and direct quotation of
    See dialect.  
  • alien
    A word used by the U.S. government to describe a foreign-born person who is not a citizen by naturalization or parentage. People who enter the United States legally are called resident aliens and they carry alien registration cards also known as green cards, because they used to be green. While Webster's first definition of the term alien is in accordance with the government's interpretation, the dictionary also includes other, darker, meanings for the word, such as “a non-terrestrial being," "strange," "not belonging to one," "adverse," "hostile." And the Encyclopedia Britannica points out that "in early times, the tendency was to look upon the alien as an enemy and to treat him as a criminal or an outlaw." It is not surprising then that in 1798, in anticipation of a possible war with France, the U.S. Congress passed the Alien and Sedition Acts, which restricted "aliens" and curtailed press freedoms. By 1800 the laws had been repealed or had expired but they still cast a negative shadow over the word. In modern times, with science-fiction growing in popularity, alien has come to mean a creature from outer space, and is considered pejorative by most immigrants.  
  • Alien Land Laws
    Enacted by many Western states in the early 1900s, these laws prevented Asians from owning land. Most of these laws were repealed in the late 1950s and 1960s.
  • anchor baby, anchor child
    A child born to a non-citizen mother in a country that grants automatic citizenship to children born on its soil, especially if parents plan the birth to secure eventual citizenship for themselves and other members of their family. The term is pejorative; avoid except in quotations.
  • Angel Island
    The West Coast counterpart to Ellis Island, N.Y. From 1910 to 1940, the U.S. Immigration Station processed hundreds of thousands of immigrants, the majority from China, at Angel Island. During World War II, Japanese, and German POWs were detained at the station before being sent to facilities farther inland. Angel Island is now a state park run by the California Department of Parks and Recreation. A virtual tour of the island, produced by the Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation, is available here.
  • Asian Exclusion Acts
    Laws in which Congress barred or sharply restricted the immigration of Asians to the United States. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 barred Chinese laborers and prohibited Chinese from applying for citizenship; it was repealed in 1943. The 1924 Oriental Exclusion Act banned immigration from Asia. The 1934 Tydings-McDuffie Act imposed an annual quota of 50 Filipino immigrants. Only after 1965, with immigration laws designed to encourage European immigration, did Asian immigration also expand.
  • DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals)
    DACA stands for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. This program provides temporary relief from deportation and employment authorization for individuals who would be eligible for the DREAM Act were it to become law. DACA was created under the president’s executive authority to grant certain classes of people “deferred action” on their immigration cases. It was announced by President Obama in June of 2012 and can be renewed. It could be terminated at any time by executive action. See DREAM Act.
  • diaspora
    Diaspora means “to scatter” in Greek, and the term is commonly used "to describe a community of people who live outside their shared country of origin or ancestry but maintain active connections with it," according to the International Diaspora Engagement Alliance. "A diaspora includes both emigrants and their descendants. While some people lose their attachment to their ancestral homeland, others maintain a strong connection to a place which their ancestors may have left generations ago. Many Americans come from mixed heritage and therefore can claim membership in multiple diaspora communities." The term is commonly used to describe the African diaspora or Black diaspora, the Jewish diaspora (the dispersion of Israelites, Judahites, and later Jews out of their ancestral homeland in the Land of Israel) and the Indian diaspora, the migration of people from India. Diasporas are often linked to an historic event, such as the expulsion of Jews from Judea, the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade, the Irish Famine, etc. migrated from territories that are currently within the borders of the Republic of India
  • DREAM Act
    The DREAM Act stands for Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors. It is a proposal first introduced in the U.S. Senate in 2001 to provide legal residency to undocumented youth who meet several criteria. Those include arrival in the United States as a minor, completing a high school diploma and completing two years in the military or at a four-year institution of higher learning. Supporters say the DREAM Act would help people and benefit the country economically. Opponents say it rewards people for breaking the law and encourages illegal immigration. See DACA.
  • English-only movement
    An effort to make English the official language of the United States. About half the states have adopted English-only laws. Opponents say such laws are unnecessary, divisive and even racist.
  • Executive Order 9066
    A war measure following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Signed Feb. 19, 1942, by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, it led to the internment in camps of [117,000 people] of Japanese heritage, two-thirds of whom were U.S. citizens. A divided cabinet recommended the measure to Roosevelt, despite an affirmation by the Office of Naval Intelligence of the loyalty of Japanese Americans. The order was designed to combat sabotage, but Americans of German and Italian heritage were largely exempt. Nazi Germany, fascist Italy and imperial Japan formed the Axis. The United States Supreme Court repeatedly affirmed the constitutionality of the order, but Congress, in 1983, called it “a grave injustice.” Text of Executive Order 9066 See Angel Island; internment, Japanese.
  • green card
    A United States Permanent Resident Card. Actually pink, this identification card allows an immigrant to reside and live permanently in the United States. Green-card holders are also able to work in the U.S., to travel and to receive some government benefits. A green-card holder is not a U.S. citizen but can live in the United States permanently. It can be insulting to ask Latinos born in the United States and Puerto Ricans whether they have a green card, as they are U.S. citizens by birth.
  • illegal alien
    Avoid. Alternative terms are undocumented worker or undocumented immigrant. The pertinent federal agencies use this term for individuals who do not have documents to show they can legally visit, work or live here. Many find the term offensive and dehumanizing because it criminalizes the person rather than the actual act of illegally entering or residing in the United States. The term does not give an accurate description of a person's conditional U.S. status, but rather demeans an individual by describing them as an alien. At the 1994 Unity convention, the four minority journalism groups – NAHJ, Asian American Journalists Association, Native American Journalists Association and National Association of Black Journalists – issued the following statement on this term: "Except in direct quotations, do not use the phrase illegal alien or the word alien, in copy or in headlines, to refer to citizens of a foreign country who have come to the U.S. with no documents to show that they are legally entitled to visit, work or live here. Such terms are considered pejorative not only by those to whom they are applied but by many people of the same ethnic and national backgrounds who are in the U.S. legally."
  • illegal immigrant
    Avoid. Illegal immigrant is a term used to describe the immigration status of people who do not have the federal documentation to show they are legally entitled to work, visit or live here. People who are undocumented according to federal authorities do not have the proper visas to be in the United States legally. Many enter the country illegally, but a large number of this group initially had valid visas, but did not return to their native countries when their visas expired. Some former students fall into the latter category. The term criminalizes the person rather than the actual act of illegally entering or residing in the United States without federal documents. Terms such as illegal alien or illegal immigrant can often be used pejoratively in common parlance and can pack a powerful emotional wallop for those on the receiving end. Instead, use undocumented immigrant or undocumented worker, both of which are terms that convey the same descriptive information without carrying the psychological baggage. Avoid using illegal(s) as a noun.  
  • illegal, illegals
    Avoid. Alternative terms are undocumented immigrant or undocumented worker. This term has been used to describe the immigration status of people who do not have the federal documentation to show they are legally entitled to work, visit or live here. The term criminalizes the person rather than the actual act of illegally entering, residing in the U.S. without documents.  
  • immigrant
    Similar to reporting about a person's race, mentioning that a person is a first-generation immigrant could be used to provide readers or viewers with background information, but the relevancy of using the term should be made apparent in the story. Also, the status of undocumented workers should be discussed between source, reporter and editors because of the risk of deportation.
  • interpreters
    Caution. An interview subject may speak limited or otherwise inadequate English. Use of another member of the family as an interpreter can yield flawed translations. A daughter, for example, may hesitate to completely translate her mother’s words or the daughter’s vocabulary (in English or the parent’s native language) may itself be limited. If deadline permits, have an independent native speaker listen to a recording of the original interview.
  • McCarran-Walter Act
    Officially known as the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952, it allowed Asians to apply for citizenship but set immigration quotas from each Asian country at only 100 annually. Liberalization of this law, in 1965, allowed the first large-scale migration of Asians into the United States in the 20th Century.
  • mixed-status couple, mixed-status family
    Usually refers to couples or families with members who have different immigration status. A mixed-status family, for example, might have a father who is an undocumented immigrant, a mother who is a legal resident and a child who was born in the United States and is a citizen. Mixed-status relationship and mixed-status couple are also sometimes used by health workers to describe a sexual relationship in which one partner is HIV-positive and the other is HIV-negative, according to, a website managed by the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services.
  • undocumented immigrant
    Preferred term to illegal alien, illegal immigrant, or illegal(s). This term describes the immigration status of people who do not have the federal documentation to show they are legally entitled to work, visit or live here. Some Latinos say this term more accurately describes people who are in the United States illegally because the word points out that they are undocumented, but does not dehumanize them in the manner that such terms as aliens and illegals do.
  • undocumented worker
    Preferred term to illegal alien, illegal immigrant or illegal(s). This term describes the immigration status of people who do not have the federal documentation to show they are legally entitled to work, visit or live here.
  • yellow peril
    Avoid, a slur. An imagined invasion of the United States at the beginning of the 20th century by Asian “hordes,” specifically Japanese, who had become successful entrepreneurs in California agriculture. Led to racialist pulp fiction.