The Handy Guide to Who’s an Immigrant and Who’s an Illegal Alien

Published on July 15th, 2015

Illegal Aliens
Illegal aliens

For years, the media, politicians and immigration advocates have broadly used “immigrants” to refer to all foreign nationals who live in the United States. Since Francisco Sanchez murdered Kate Steinle in San Francisco, “immigrants” is the word of choice for most who comment in print or over the airwaves on Sanchez’s status and the San Francisco City Council’s sanctuary policy. Presidential candidates like to talk about “immigrants,” how accepting they are of them or how hostile their opponents are.

“Immigrants” is a very convenient word for almost everybody in the public arena because it avoids categorizing the foreign-born accurately which could lead to charges of, at worst, racism or, at best, political incorrectness. While some are immigrants, many are illegal aliens.

Since immigration, legal and illegal, is already a central point of debate in the 2016 elections, there are important distinctions that must be made. Boiled down to its simplest form, people like Sanchez who cross the border without a valid visa and through other than a designated port of entry are illegal aliens – not immigrants.

An immigrant is an alien who USCIS has given permission to reside in the U.S. permanently and work without restriction. Eventually, immigrants receive green cards. Immigrants are often referred to as lawful permanent residents (LPRs).


Individuals who come to the United States on non-immigrant visas like tourist or work-related visas, but then overstay the terms of those visas and become out of status, are not immigrants – they too are illegal aliens and are deportable. But during the years their visas are valid, they are formally known as legal aliens. U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services has given them permission to live, and in some cases, work in the United States.

Here’s a handy who’s who glossary to the correct immigration terminology. Use it to call out those who ignore it.

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