Immigration Law Glossary

Clients sometimes find it difficult to speak with their attorney about important immigration issues. The definitions provided below will help you better understand the legal lingo you need to resolve your case.




Adjustment of Status

The process that an immigrant, who is currently in the United States, uses to apply for lawful permanent residence status. When applying through an adjustment of status, the applicant does not have to return to their home country.


Eligibility of an alien to legally enter and remain in the United States upon authorization by USCIS.

Advance Parole

The permission to travel back into the United States without needing to apply for a visa. U.S. customs or an airline can accept Advance Parole documentation as proof that you can travel into the U.S. without a visa.

Affidavit of Support

A legally binding contract that promises that the person signing it (see “sponsor”) will support an applicant financially in the U.S. and will reimburse the government for any public assistance the applicant receives. Usually submitted as part of a green card application.

Aggravated Felony

A category of crimes that are considered particularly serious. These crimes have severe consequences for non-U.S. citizens and their immigration statuses. Offenders can be deemed ineligible for naturalization. The INA and various state laws specify which crimes are aggravated felonies.


A person who is not a U.S. citizen or U.S. national.

Alien Registration Number (“A-Number”)

The unique seven, eight, or nine-digit number assigned to an alien by DHS or USCIS. DHS and USCIS use an alien’s A-Number to identify them and allows them to keep track of an individual’s various immigration forms and petitions.

Application Support Center (ASC)

A USCIS office where applicants will have their biometrics and interview appointments. The applicant will receive a notice specifying which ASC office to report to for these appointments.


A type of immigration benefit granted by the U.S. government to specific individuals. Aliens who have fled their country due to a well-founded fear of persecution can receive asylum.



The alien for whom a petition or application for an immigration benefit has been filed on behalf of.


The physical characteristics used to identify a person that USCIS records during an applicant’s biometrics appointment. Generally, this will include your fingerprints and a photograph.

Birth Certificate

A government-issued document that records the birth of a child. A birth certificate includes identifying information, including the child’s legal name, place of birth, date of birth, and names of both parents.


Case Number

A number issued by the National Visa Center (NVC) for each immigration petition they receive. The government uses the number to keep track of an individual’s immigration and visa applications. One person can have multiple case numbers depending on how many applications and/or petitions they have filed.

Certificate of Citizenship

Documentation that identifies a person as a U.S. citizen. A Certificate of Citizenship is issued to U.S citizens who are born to U.S. citizens but are born abroad, or to derivative citizens.

Certificate of Naturalization

Documentation identifying a person as a citizen. The U.S. government issues Certificates of Naturalization to individuals who gained citizenship through the naturalization process.


The status of being a national of a particular country. One can obtain U.S. citizenship through (1) birth, (2) one’s parents at a later date, or, (3) naturalization.

Citizenship Test

An in-person test administered during an interview as part of the naturalization process. It tests to see if candidates for citizenship can speak, read, and write in English, as well as display a basic understanding of American civics, including American history and the U.S. government system.

Conditional Residence

Permanent residence status that the government grants on a conditional basis. Aliens can receive conditional residence through their spouse or employer. Conditional residence status lasts for two years. After the two years, the alien with conditional residence status can apply to USCIS or DHS to remove the conditions of the residence.

Continuous Residence

The uninterrupted time span that a green card holder has spent in the United States since gaining U.S residence. To be eligible for naturalization, you must maintain continuous residence for 3 to 5 years. Any trip outside of the U.S. that lasts more than 6 months can break continuous residence.

Consular Processing

The process of applying for a green card while outside the United States. This process is different from applying through the adjustment of status process and is handled by a U.S. embassy or consulate in the individual’s country of residence.


A diplomatic office in a foreign country. In many foreign countries, the United States has one embassy in the capital city, but may also have smaller offices, called consulates, in smaller cities around that country. Consulates offer U.S. immigration services.

Crime of Moral Turpitude

A crime that is generally seen by the public as morally reprehensible and intrinsicly wrong. For example, murder, spousal abuse, animal fighting, theft, fraud, and many other such acts count as crimes of moral turpitude. Committing such a crime often results in the loss of certain immigration benefits and/or an inability to apply for future benefits (such as a green card or citizenship).

Customs and Border Patrol (CBP)

A U.S. federal government agency that is run by the Department of Homeland Security. CBP officers enforce customs and border regulations.


Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA)

A federal regulation allowing undocumented immigrants whose parents brought them to the U.S. as children (referred to as dreamers) to legally live, work, and go to school in the U.S.

Department of Homeland Security (DHS)

The department of the U.S. federal government that is responsible for public security. DHS controls immigration-related agencies including Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), U.S. Citizen and Immigration Services (USCIS), and Customs and Border Protection.

Department of Justice (DOJ)

A department of the federal government. The DOJ is in charge of regulating law enforcement, the criminal justice system, and the U.S. court system. The DOJ is also in charge of immigration courts.

Department of State (DOS)

A department of the federal government that oversees foreign affairs and diplomacy. The DOS also runs the various U.S. consulates and embassies around the world.


See “Removal Proceedings.”


The ability to make decisions based on an individual’s own judgment. In some cases, USCIS officers are trusted to evaluate applications and decide whether to issue an approval or denial.


The different geographical sections of the United States used by USCIS. For example, both Virginia and Washington D.C. are in District 7.



A U.S. diplomatic office usually located in the capital city of a foreign country. While there often is only one embassy in a country, the U.S. may have multiple consulates around the country that provide the same immigration services that the embassy does.

Employment Authorization

The ability to legally work in the United States. Green card holders automatically have employment authorization upon the issue of their green card. Aliens who do not hold a green card can request an employment authorization document (EAD) from the Department of Homeland Security.


Family Preference Immigrant

Aliens who are eligible for green cards because they are a family member of a U.S. citizen or permanent resident.

There are different categorizations of family preference immigrants, ranging from first to fourth preference, that distinguish between the different types of familial relationships and the impact that relationship has on the alien’s immigration eligibility.


Good Moral Character

An eligibility requirement for naturalization. To determine if an applicant has good moral character, immigration officials will look at things like criminal records.



Immediate Relative

For immigration purposes, immediate relatives are spouses, unmarried children (under the age of 21), and parents of U.S. citizens. The U.S. citizen must be over the age of 21 for their parent to be considered an immediate relative.


The process of legally relocating from one’s home country to another country. Immigration usually implies the receipt of various societal benefits such as the right to work and the right to travel into and out of the country without additional hassle. Immigration also generally leads to citizenship after you live several years in the country.

Immigration Benefit

A visa, status, or other right/ability that a non-U.S. citizen requests from the U.S. government. This includes green cards, temporary visas, and employment authorizations.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE)

The government department that is in charge of enforcing immigration law. The Department of Homeland Security oversees ICE.

Immigration and Nationality Act (INA)

The current federal law governing immigration in the U.S.

Immigration Status

A specific distinction given to an alien who has come to the United States. Immigration statuses vary based on what rights and abilities the status provides an individual.

For example, if you have a green card, you can live permanently in the U.S. However, if you have conditional residence status, you may only be able to stay in the U.S. for a specific amount of time.


An inadmissible individual is not legally permitted to enter or remain in the United States. Certain circumstances and characteristics, as defined by the INA, render an applicant inadmissible, resulting in the denial of their application.

Internal Revenue Service (IRS)

The part of the federal government that collects taxes. The IRS records a person’s history of paying taxes and administers federal tax laws.


An in-person meeting with an immigration official. Interviews may be requested for adjustment of status applicants and are required for individuals going through the naturalization process.



Joint Sponsor

A person, other than the primary sponsor, who has agreed to support the applicant financially. A joint sponsor may be necessary in cases where the primary sponsor does not have the financial resources to qualify.

The joint sponsor legally accepts financial responsibility for the applicant when signing an I-864 form with the primary sponsor. To be eligible as a joint sponsor, an individual must be:

  • 18 or older;
  • A U.S. citizen or lawful permanent resident;
  • Domiciled in the United States; and,
  • Able to meet the 125 percent income requirement for the immigrant that they sponsor.


The authority to apply the law in a particular geographical region. For example, state courts in Virginia have jurisdiction over cases in Virginia.



Labor Certification

The process a U.S. employer goes through to get permission to hire certain foreign workers. The employer must prove that no U.S. workers are qualified or available for the job.

To sponsor an alien for an employment-based green card, it is often necessary that the employer first acquire a labor certification.

Lawful Permanent Resident

The immigration status given to individuals who are legally allowed to permanently live and work in the United States. Lawful permanent residents are issued a green card after they receive this immigration benefit.



National Visa Center (NVC)

The government facility run by the Department of State. The NVC processes all visa applications sent to the U.S. by the various U.S. consulates and embassies around the world.

The NVC also collects and processes the fees that accompany the visa applications.


The process a non-U.S. citizen goes through to gain U.S. citizenship. Green card holders are eligible for naturalization 3-5 years after gaining permanent residence.


An alien who comes to the U.S. as a temporary visitor or guest worker. Nonimmigrants can receive temporary visas that have time constraints and cannot be used to immigrate to the U.S. permanently. For example, a tourist visa is a nonimmigrant visa. So, individuals who receive a tourist visa are nonimmigrants.


A term used to describe the process of an officially authorized person confirming the identity of an individual signing a document. Notaries are not government officials but are licensed to witness signatures. Various legal documents require notarization.


Oath Ceremony

Part of the naturalization process. To become a naturalized citizen, a person must attend an oath ceremony where they take an Oath of Allegiance to the U.S.

Oath of Allegiance

The oath given during the oath ceremony as part of the naturalization process. When giving the Oath of Allegiance, newly naturalized U.S. citizens pledge their support to the U.S. and the U.S. Constitution, thereby renouncing their allegiance to any other government or country.


When an alien remains in the U.S. beyond the date listed on their I-94 travel record. Overstays have potentially serious consequences for an alien’s future visa applications and intent to return to the U.S.



Temporary permission to be present in the U.S. Decided on a case by case basis. An alien may be temporarily allowed in the U.S. for urgent humanitarian reasons or significant public benefit. For example, the U.S. government may parole an alien to receive medical treatment or to be a witness in a court case.


A travel document issued by a government to its citizens upon request. Passports contain physical identification of its holder and record the holder’s international travel. Passports are required to travel internationally and are checked at customs and border patrol when a person is entering into the U.S.

Permanent Resident

See “Lawful Permanent Resident.”

Permanent Resident Card (“Green Card”)

The documentation issued by the U.S. government signifying that an immigrant is legally living and working permanently in the U.S. Also known as a green card.


An immigration petition is a formal request submitted to USCIS in which a person (usually a U.S. citizen) asks the government to grant an immigration benefit to another person (the “beneficiary”). The person who files this immigration petition is referred to as the “petitioner.”

Physical Presence

To physically be inside the borders of a country. Different from residence, which only means one has established a home in a country. Physical presence in the United States is a naturalization eligibility requirement. To qualify for U.S. citizenship through the naturalization process, a person must spend 3-5 years in the United States, but must only be physically present in the U.S. at least half of that time.

Port of Entry

Locations in the U.S. and U.S. territories where aliens and U.S. citizens coming from outside the U.S. can enter the country legally. Borders, seaports, and airports are ports of entry, as are USCIS field offices and service centers.

Poverty Guidelines

A guideline published annually by the U.S. government specifying the income level below which a person or household is living in poverty. The guidelines vary based on household size. In immigration law, USCIS and DHS use poverty guidelines to determine eligibility for some immigration benefits.

Priority Date

The date in which USCIS receives an individual’s I-130 petition. A person’s priority date indicates their “spot in line” when waiting for an immigration benefit. USCIS sends an applicant’s priority date in the I-797 notice that they send to the applicant when their I-130 is approved.

Processing Time

The time it takes for the government to review and make a decision on an immigration application. The time varies based on the immigration benefit sought by the applicant and the number of applications being reviewed by the government at that time.

Public Assistance

Need-based assistance provided to individuals in the U.S. in the form of cash payments, food stamps, healthcare assistance, tax credits, and housing.

Public Charge Rule

The recently implemented federal regulation that created new grounds for determining if an applicant is inadmissible. The Public Charge Rule allows USCIS to deny an application if the applicant is, has been, or is likely to become a public charge. A public charge is what the government calls a person that is using public assistance.



Reentry Permit

The travel document a green card holder uses when they are going to be traveling outside the U.S. for more than one but no more than two years.

A reentry permit allows the green card holder to travel outside of the U.S. without the government presuming that the individual has abandoned their U.S. residence.

The permit should be obtained before the person travels in order to document their intention to return to the U.S. and their intention to remain a lawful permanent resident.

A reentry permit can also be used as a passport if a green card holder cannot get a passport from their country of citizenship.


An individual who has left their country of residence due to persecution, conflict, or natural disaster and seeks shelter/protection in another country. When a refugee seeks protection/shelter in the U.S., the immigration benefit received is called asylum.

Removal Proceedings

The process of making an alien leave the U.S. because the government has deemed them as inadmissible or has decided to deport them.

Request for Evidence (RFE)

A request that USCIS or DHS will send an applicant when they have determined the evidence an applicant provided was insufficient because:

  • There was missing evidence;
  • The evidence provided is no longer valid or has expired and/or;
  • The officer needs more evidence to evaluate the applicant’s eligibility.


Special Immigrant Juvenile Status (SIJS)

A unique pathway to permanent residency for minors who were abused, abandoned or neglected by at least one parent.

Supporting Documents

Evidentiary documents submitted in support of an immigration petition, application, or request. The required supporting documents differ based on the type of immigration sought.


Temporary Protected Status (TPS)

An immigration status granted to individuals from certain countries experiencing conflict, civil disorder, or natural disaster allowing those individuals to legally live and work in the U.S. because returning to their home country would be too dangerous.



U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS)

A federal government agency that is in charge of administering the U.S.’s naturalization and immigration system. The Department of Homeland Security controls USCIS.



The documentation an alien will need to obtain before entering the U.S. or applying to enter the U.S. Visas differ based on the purpose of the alien’s travel.

A visa allows an alien to travel to the U.S. port of entry and request permission from the government to enter. A visa does not guarantee an alien the right to enter the U.S. but is a prerequisite to do so.

Visa Bulletin

The monthly update provided by the DOS that indicates the different waiting periods for the various visa categories of family and employment-based green cards.

Visa Number

The unique number assigned to each visa issued by the U.S. government. Annually, the government places quotas on the amount of visa numbers issued to different visa categories.

Visa Status

Immigration law does not have a defined concept of “visa status.” See “immigration status” and “visa” for clarification between the two.

Visa Waiver Program

The ability for individuals from 38 countries to travel into the U.S. for business or pleasure for up to 90 days without requiring a visa. These individuals must have an e-passport and go through the ESTA system.





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