It’s important to know how the government defines you when attempting to come to the United States. For example, what’s the difference between a migrant vs. immigrant or asylee vs. refugee? Is there a difference? For legal purposes, ignore all other sources for definitions and go straight to the Department of Homeland Security (DOH). Since they decide whether you enter or not, their definition is the essential one. This guide will help you decipher how DOH defines migrant, immigrant, nonimmigrant, asylee, and refugee.

Migrant vs. Immigrant: Who is Considered a Migrant?

The DOH simply defines a migrant as someone leaving their home country to live in another country.

Essentially, you shouldn’t think of it as migrant vs. immigrant, but more like immigrant falls under the term migrant. DOH’s definition places migrant as an umbrella term for all forms of people moving across borders to change residency no matter the reason and length of time.

Other dictionaries, websites, and non-profit organizations typically refer to migrants as those anyone moving from place to place even if it’s within the same country. This would lead to a stronger distinction between migrant vs. immigrant. Yet, if you’re coming to the U.S., the only definition you should be interested in is from DOH as it decides whether you get in or not.

DOH has different visas, acts, and laws for specific types of migrants, so let’s look at those.

migrant vs. immigrant

Who Does DOH Consider an Immigrant?

DOH doesn’t define immigrants and actually directs you to Permanent Resident Alien when you search on the DOH’s page for definitions of terms. Permanent Resident Alien—more commonly known as a green card holder—is a foreigner who can live permanently inside the U.S. Permanent Resident Aliens enter the U.S. through immigrant visas issued by the Department of State or DOH.

DOH doesn’t like using the terms immigrant because it finds the Immigration and Nationality Act’s (INA) definition broad. The INA defines an immigrant as “every alien” except those who entered the country with nonimmigrant visas. An alien as anyone without citizenship. Migrant vs. immigrant becomes harder to understand if you go by the INA, that’s why it’s best to follow DOH’s definition.

So for the procedural purposes of entering the country, when you see DOH use immigrants, they refer to foreigners with immigration visas in one of the four different immigration categories looking to live permanently in the U.S.

Migrant vs. Immigrant: What are the 4 Types of Permanent Resident Aliens?

You can become a Permanent Resident Alien—the DOH’s preferred term over immigrant—through one of the four following categories:

  1. Family-Based Green Cards:  Spouses, children, parents, and siblings
  2. Employment-Based Green Cards: Priority workers, Advanced-degree workers, skilled workers, investors, and special workers
  3. Diversity-Based Green Cards: Winners of the Diversity Visa Lottery
  4. Humanitarian-Based Green Cards: Asylees and refugees

Each of these categories has its own procedures, processing times, and rules. It’s best to seek the assistance of an immigration attorney for help going through these green card journeys.

What’s the Difference between Refugee vs. Asylee?

Asylees and refugees fall under the humanitarian-based green cards immigration category. Looking at the DOH’s definitions of terms, it’s normal not to know the difference between refugee vs. asylee. They look identical.

Asylee – An alien in the United States or at a port of entry who is found to be unable or unwilling to return to his or her country of nationality, or to seek the protection of that country because of persecution or a well-founded fear of persecution. Persecution or the fear thereof must be based on the alien’s race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion. For persons with no nationality, the country of nationality is considered to be the country in which the alien last habitually resided. Asylees are eligible to adjust to lawful permanent resident status after one year of continuous presence in the United States.

Refugee – Any person who is outside his or her country of nationality who is unable or unwilling to return to that country because of persecution or a well-founded fear of persecution. Persecution or the fear thereof must be based on the alien’s race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion. People with no nationality must generally be outside their country of last habitual residence to qualify as a refugee.

However, there is only one key difference to know between refugee vs. asylee:

  • A refugee requests protection and legal entry while outside of the U.S. An asylee requests protection and legal entry inside the U.S. or at a port of entry.

Basically, an asylum seeker wants to be considered a refugee but has to go through an application process to prove to DOH that they should get the same treatment as a refugee.

Both refugees and asylees are afforded similar rights once they are both in the U.S. and the ability to adjust to green card holders.

However, there are differences when they are both outside the U.S.

refugee vs asylee comparison

Refugee vs. Asylee: Federal Benefits

One of the biggest differences between refugees vs. asylees is the federal benefits.

Refugees are eligible for medical and financial assistance including:

  • Travel loan and advice
  • Medical exam
  • Help with cultural orientation

Asylum seekers do not get access to these funds and assistance.

Refugee vs. Asylee: Work Permits

Both refugees and asylees can receive work permits. However, there are some slight differences.

Refugees receive work permits within the first few months of being in the U.S. However, because asylees apply for that status while in the U.S., they sometimes have to wait for DOH to approve their asylum application. As a result, asylees tend to have to wait longer than refugees to get their work permits. However, if there are delays outside the applicant’s control, the asylee can get a work permit while still waiting for approval.

Refugee vs. Asylee: Green Card and Citizenship

Both refugees and asylees can apply for a green card. Then, after four years, both can apply for citizenship.

What is a nonimmigrant?

Nonimmigrants fall in the migrant category of aliens who come to the U.S. but are not intending to live here permanently.

DOH defines nonimmigrants as:

An alien who seeks temporary entry to the United States for a specific purpose. The alien must have a permanent residence abroad (for most classes of admission) and qualify for the nonimmigrant classification sought.

There are 5 categories of nonimmigrants visas:

  1. Work: H1-B, I-1, L-1, O-1, E-1 and E-2, R, TN visas
  2. Education: F-1 and M-1 visas
  3. Cultural Exchange: J-1, P-1, Q-1
  4. Diplomatic: A-1 and G-1 visa
  5. Visitor: B and C visas

While nonimmigrants may start not intending to live permanently, it doesn’t mean it has to stay that way. There are plenty of routes where nonimmigrants can get green cards and stay in the U.S. permanently. Below are just six routes out of many to go from nonimmigrant to green card holders:

  1. H-1B Visa to Green Card
  2. TN Visa to Green Card
  3. L-1A to Green Card
  4. L-1B Visa to Green Card
  5. E-2 Visa to Green Card
  6. J-1 Visa Waiver to Green Card

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When starting your journey to the U.S. it's important to first contact an immigration attorney to learn your best route. Let a professional determine whether you're a migrant, immigrant, nonimmigrant, refugee, or asylee and how best to enter the country for a new beginning.

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