Key Terms



A person who is forced to flee their home country due to reasons of war, violence, natural disaster, danger or persecution without warning. Refugees cannot return to their home countries until it is deemed safe to do so.

Legal Definition and Origin

The first modern definition of international refugee status came about under the League of Nations in 1921 from the Commission for Refugees. Following World War II, and in response to the large numbers of people fleeing Eastern Europe, the UN 1951 Refugee Convention adopted the following definition of “refugee” to apply to any person who:

“owing to well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country; or who, not having a nationality and being outside the country of his former habitual residence as a result of such events, is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to return to it.”

Refugees in Our Time

Refugees in modern times have originated from almost all corners of the planet. After the onset of the Syrian Civil War in 2011, around 5 million Syrian refugees have sought asylum abroad in safer countries, particularly Turkey, Lebanon, and across the Mediterranean to Germany. In Afghanistan, years of instability, unemployment, and insecurity have caused nearly 2.6 million people to leave the country for Iran, Pakistan, the United States, or Europe. Likewise, civil war in South Sudan uprooted about 2.4 million people from their homes who have been forced to cross into neighboring countries. Still to this day in South Sudan, ongoing warfare, flooding, and drought continue to worsen what is already a dangerous humanitarian crisis. There are massive needs for clean water, health care, sanitation, food, shelter, and protection across the country, and millions of people now require urgent support to survive.  

Refugees in America

To help those in need who flee to America’s shores, the United States Refugee Act of 1980 provides a well-defined national policy and flexible mechanism to admit refugees into the country. Instituted to meet the needs of the rapidly shifting developments of today’s world policy, the act established explicit procedures on how to deal with refugees in the United States by creating a uniform resettlement and absorption policy.

As defined by the act, a refugee is someone fleeing persecution on the same grounds of an asylum seeker. The differences comes in that refugees have attained somewhat long-term legal status in the United States. The quota for refugees to be admitted into the United States is set at 50,000, but this number can be altered to meet the needs of the current times.

Asylum Seeker

An Asylum Seeker seeks international protection from dangers in their home country, but their refugee status hasn’t yet been determined legally. They must apply for refugee status in the country in which they fled to by demonstrating that their fear of persecution in their home country is valid. Not all asylum seekers will obtain the status of refugee.

Refugees in Our Time

The applicant becomes an asylee if their application for asylum is granted. The relevant immigration authorities of the country of asylum determine whether the asylum seeker will be granted protection and become an officially recognised refugee (asylee) or whether asylum will be refused and asylum seeker becomes an illegal immigrant who has to leave the country and may even be deported. The asylum seeker may be recognized as a refugee and given refugee status if the person’s circumstances fall into the definition of “refugee” according to the 1951 Refugee Convention or other refugee laws, such as the European Convention on Human Rights – if asylum is claimed within the European Union.

Rights of Asylum Seekers

Whilst waiting for a decision, asylum seekers have limited rights in the country of asylum. In most countries, they are not allowed to work and in some countries they are not even allowed to volunteer. In some countries they are not allowed to move freely within the country. Even access to health care is limited

Asylum in the United States

In the United States, asylum has two basic requirements. First, an asylum applicant must establish that he or she fears persecution in their home country. Second, the applicant must prove that he or she would be persecuted on account of one of five protected grounds: race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or particular social group. Additionally, the asylum seeker can only apply for asylum if they are within the United States.

To accomplish this, people seeking asylum in the United States work with (usually) their lawyer and United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). Asylum seekers must apply within a year of entering the country, and a USCIS officer decides whether the individual will be granted asylum in the United States. If the asylum seeker is denied, USCIS will list them for removal, but the seeker could alternatively file for defensive asylum to renew their request for asylum.



One who moves, either temporarily or permanently, from one place, area, or country of residence to another; one who moves to another place of residence or study, field of employment, etc.1

Types of Migration

Demographers study the following types of migration:

  • Internal migration: migration which refers to “a change of residence within national boundaries, such as between states, provinces, cities, or municipalities. An internal migrant is someone who moves to a different administrative territory.”2
  • International migration: migration which refers to change of residence over national boundaries. “International migrants are further classified as legal immigrants, illegal immigrants, and refugees.
    • Legal immigrants are those who moved with the legal permission of the receiver nation, illegal immigrants are those who moved without legal permission, and refugees are those crossed an international boundary to escape persecution.” 1
    • The United Nations Population Division classifies an international migrant as “someone who has been living for one or more years in a country other than the one in which he or she was born.”3
  • Circular Migration: often the type of migration done for employment. “It involves temporary and usually repetitive movement of a migrant worker between host and home areas.”4
    • The International Organization for Migration advocates that destination countries should provide mechanisms that promote repeat and regular circular migration, while also providing incentives to return to their same job in their home country.5

Reasons for Migration

Reasons for migration are widespread and a migrant’s reason for seeking refuge is largely context specific. At an individual level, people may choose to migrate because of6:

  • Environmental Factors
    • Sudden or long-term changes to their local environment which effect a person’s security and well-being. Environmental factors typically include “increased droughts, desertification, sea level rise, and disruption of seasonal weather patterns.”7
  • Financial Factors
    • In countries that are plagued by poor wages and a lack of jobs, people migrate out of their country to find work and higher pay. Often, they will send home remittances to their family while they are abroad trying to make a living to support themselves and their family members.
  • Political Factors
    • Persecution, war, and violence are often factors that push people to emigrate. They leave their country to escape unfavorable conditions propagated by instability within their home country that depletes their opportunity to create fulfilling lives.

Legal Statures for Migrants in the U.S.

Legal migration pathways in the United States cater to highly skilled professionals with formal qualifications and can fill jobs that require that level of skill or knowledge. Legal pathways are often too narrow for low-skilled migrants to come into the country and find work, thus they often turn to illegal migration into the country to find work. The legal process makes it difficult for employers to hire migrants, so they, too, often turn to illegal migrants for jobs.

According to the Migration Policy Institute, at the 2016 New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants, UN Member States declared their ideals of considering “opportunities for safe, orderly, and regular migration.”8 This would detract from the dangers, such as violence, abuse, and death, that often result from illegal migration into the United States

All persons are governed by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states that “everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and return to his country.”9 However, this right is not recognized by all, and when migrant workers’ rights are violated there are not currently legal statues set in place that favor low-skilled migrant workers, making it easier to exploit them. Within international law, the problem of migration raises concerns with the regulation of asylum and immigration.


Legal Policy for Temporary Migration to the United States

New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants

On September 19th, 2016, United Nations General Assembly adopted the New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants, a document which recognized a need for more cooperation between nations to manage migration effectively and ultimately led to the Global Compact for Migration, 2018.

  • Global Compact for Migration
    • GOM was an intergovernmentally negotiated agreement, prepared by the United Nations, that describes itself as covering “all dimensions of international migration in a holistic and comprehensive manner.”13 The GOM had 23 objectives and commitments listed in its draft agreement, including: “collecting and using accurate and anonymized data to develop evidence-based migration policy, ensuring that all migrants have proof of identity, enhancing availability and flexibility for regular migration, encouraging cooperation for tracking missing migrants and saving lives, ensuring migrants can access basic services, and making provisions for both full inclusion of migrants and social cohesion.”13  The GOM agreement does not differentiate between illegal and legal migrants, but it does differentiate between regular and irregular migrants and gives states the right to distinguish between the two. 13

Current Migrant Info and Facts

Further Reading




Latin immigrānt-em, present participle of immigrāre to immigrate v., after emigrant (1754)14


To come to settle in a country (which is not one’s own); to pass into a new habitat or place of residence (literal and figurative); one who enters into a country for the purpose of settling there.14

According to, “Foreign born” and “immigrant” are often used interchangeably and refer to persons with no U.S. citizenship at birth. This population includes naturalized citizens, lawful permanent residents, refugees and asylees, persons or certain temporary visas, and the unauthorized.15

History of the Term

In 1806, Noah Webster, of Websters dictionary, coined the term “immigrant” after the verb “to migrate.” He defined immigrate first as “to remove from a country” and later in 1928, the more elaborate form of the word, to remove into a country for the purpose of permanent residence.”16

As of 2017, according to, More than 44.5 million in 2017. 1:7 residents is foreign born and make up about 13.7% of the US population.15

Types of Immigrants

There are different classifications of immigrants in the United States

  • United States Citizen. To become a US citizen, a green card must be held for a minimum of 5 years or for at least 3 years if filing as a spouse of a US citizen. Certain eligibility requirements must be met, including being at least 18 years old at the time of filing, being able to read, write, and speak basic English, and be in good standing legally. There is also a ten step naturalization process.
  • Lawful Permanent Residents are also known as green card holders and are legal residents who are able to accept employment offers without restrictions, own property, receive financial aid at public colleges and universities, and join the Armed Forces. LPRs may join the Armed Forces and apply for citizenship if they meet eligibility requirements.
  • Temporary Visitor US Legal defines a temporary visitor as an alien who seeks temporary entry to the United States for a specific purpose. Such alien should have a permanent residence abroad (for most classes of admission) and qualify for the nonimmigrant classification sought.17
  • Undocumented Immigrant is a foreign national who is living without official authorization in a country of which they are not a citizen.

Reasons for Immigration

The most common reasons for immigration are18:

  • Work and economic job opportunities
  • To be with family members
  • For education
  • Safety
  • Temporary Visitors for Business or Pleasure

Legal Statures & Policy for Immigrants


“The Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) was launched in 2012 and it offered a two-year grant of deportation relief and work authorization to eligible young unauthorized immigrants. There were specified requirements for eligibility which included:

  • being at least 15 years old;
  • having entered the United States before the age of 16;
  • having continuously resided in the United States since June 15, 2007;
  • being enrolled in school, having earned a high school diploma or its equivalent, or being an honorably discharged veteran; and
  • having not been convicted of a felony, significant misdemeanor, or three or more misdemeanors; or otherwise posing a threat to public safety or national security.”19

On September 5, 2017 the Trump Administration announced a rescission of DACA that would also have a a six-month wind-down period. Federal courts have challenged the Trump Administration decision and a nationwide ruling has kept the DACA program in place, only for people who currently have or in the past have had DACA benefits.19

Immigration Under the Trump Administration

In October 2017, the Trump administration indicated that the US is going to interview every applicant applying for a green card. In 2017 the administration additionally:

  • “Banned nationals of eight countries, most majority-Muslim, from entering the United States.
  • Reduced refugee admissions to the lowest level since the resettlement program was created in 1980.
  • Reversed the decline in arrests of unauthorized immigrants in the U.S. interior that had occurred during the last two years of the Obama administration.
  • Cancelled the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which is currently providing work authorization and temporary relief from deportation to approximately 690,000 unauthorized immigrants brought to the United States as children.
  • Ended the designation of Temporary Protected Status for nationals of Haiti, Nicaragua and Sudan, and signaled that Hondurans and possibly Salvadorans may also lose their work authorization and protection from removal in 2018.”20
Donald Trump Travel Ban

The Travel Ban proposed under the Trump administration was an executive order. In Congress, it is known as Executive Order 13769, it indefinitely suspends the distribution of immigrant and nonimmigrant visas to applicants from the Muslim-majority countries including Libya, Iran, Somalia, Syria and Yemen — plus North Korea and Venezuela. Executive Order 13770 issued on January 27, 2017, revoked and replaced EO13769.  EO13770 suspended the US Refugee Admissions Program for 120 days and restricts admission and halts new visa applications of citizens from Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen for 90 days. It suspended admission of refugees for 120 days.

Trump Wall

The Trump Wall is Trump’s proposition of an extension on the already existing barrier between the US and Mexico to help prevent illegal immigration. On January 25, 2017, the Trump administration signed Executive Order 13767, which “formally directed the US government to begin attempting to construct a border wall using existing federal funding, although actual construction of a wall did not begin at this time due to the large expense and lack of clarity on how it would be paid for.”21 On February 15, 2019, Trump declared a national state of emergency to get more funding for border. According to experts and analyses, the actual cost to construct a wall along the remaining 1,300 miles of the border could be as high as $16 million per mile, with a total cost of up to $25 billion21. The cost of private land acquisitions and fence maintenance pushing up the total cost further.  Maintenance of the wall could cost up to $750 million a year. The addition of Border Patrol agents would raise the annual cost.21

More Information

Podcast: Immigrants in America, what does it mean to be an immigrant in America today?

How the US Immigration System Works

Data and Analysis Related to Trump Administration Actions on Immigrant and Refugee Policy

U.S. Immigration Policy under Trump: Deep Changes and Lasting Impacts

Trump Travel Ban and How it Works

Major US Immigration Laws 1970-2013

  1. “Migrant.” Home : Oxford English Dictionary, Oxford University Press,
  2. “Migration – Types Of Migration.” Types Of Migration – Family, International, and Internal – JRank Articles. Accessed April 18, 2019.
  3. “International Migrants by Country.” Pew Research Center’s Global Attitudes Project. January 30, 2019. Accessed April 18, 2019.
  4. “Circular Migration.” Wikipedia. February 01, 2019. Accessed April 18, 2019.
  5. “International Organization for Migration.” Wikipedia. March 28, 2019. Accessed April 18, 2019.
  6. “Root Causes of Migration.” Justice for Immigrants. February 14, 2017. Accessed April 18, 2019.
  7. “Environmental Migrant.” Wikipedia. April 15, 2019. Accessed April 18, 2019.
  8. Fratzke, Susan, and Brian Salant. “Moving Beyond “Root Causes:” The Complicated Relationship between Development and Migration.” January 30, 2018. Accessed April 18, 2019.
  9. “Universal Declaration of Human Rights.” United Nations. Accessed April 18, 2019.
  10. Rauscher, Frederick. “Kant’s Social and Political Philosophy.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. September 01, 2016. Accessed April 18, 2019.
  11. Kistner, U., 2014, ‘The ‘political society’ of the governed? Marginalia beyond ‘marginalisation’, HTS Teologiese Studies/ Theological Studies 70(1), Art. #2618, 6 pages. http:// v70i1.2618
  12. Migration in the 21st Century: Rights, Outcomes, and Policy. London: Routledge, 2013. October 4, 2010. Accessed April 18, 2019.
  13. “Global Compact for Migration.” Wikipedia. April 13, 2019. Accessed April 18, 2019.
  14. “Immigrant.” Home : Oxford English Dictionary, Oxford University Press,
  15. “Migration Policy Institute.” November 01, 2018. Accessed April 18, 2019.
  16. Wills, Matthew. “How Noah Webster Invented the Word Immigration.” JStor Daily. May 25, 2017. Accessed April 18, 2019.
  17. US Legal, Inc. “Temporary Resident Law and Legal Definition.” Temporary Resident Law and Legal Definition | USLegal, Inc. Accessed April 18, 2019.
  18. “Why Do People Come to the US?” US Immigration Report. Accessed April 18, 2019.
  19. Zong, Jie, Jeanne Batalova Jie Zong, Jeanne Batalova, and Micayla Burrows. “Frequently Requested Statistics on Immigrants and Immigration in the United States.” April 15, 2019. Accessed April 18, 2019.
  20. Pierce, Sarah, and Andrew Selee. “Immigration under Trump: A Review of Policy Shifts in the Year Since the Election.” January 22, 2018. Accessed April 18, 2019.
  21. “Trump Wall.” Wikipedia. April 18, 2019. Accessed April 18, 2019.


Sydney Gualtieri and Gregory Zankowsky 2019

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