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Challenges of Immigration

15 Terms You Should Understand

Immigration is in the news frequently, but some of the information can be confusing or contradictory. Let’s explore some of the terminology that’s being used as we continue to evaluate a system that is affecting so many families and businesses across the country.

Immigration Enforcement

United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) is a division of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). As the primary administrator of the nation’s immigration system, USCIS handles adjudicating all immigration applications and petitions. In 2003, DHS assumed the duties of the former Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), dividing the enforcement and services functions into USCIS and ICE, or Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Often, ICE and the U.S. Border Patrol are mistaken for one another. The United States Customs and Border Protection (CBP) enforces immigration laws at any port of entry, and specifically, the U.S. Border Patrol protects the physical land borders, while both agencies enable the movement of legitimate trade and travelers. ICE has more of an investigative role and tends to operate not only at the border, but throughout the interior of the United States, wherever immigration violations may occur. The videos and reports of government raids on businesses and residences are almost always conducted by ICE agents.

Immigrant vs. Alien

Depending on the source, news outlets use the terms illegal aliens and undocumented immigrants interchangeably to describe individuals in the U.S. without a legal immigration status. This category usually encompasses individuals who entered the U.S. without inspection, as well as individuals who entered the U.S. with legal permission, but overstayed their period of valid stay.

An individual physically present in the United States without authorization is not automatically considered a criminal, nor is someone who attempts to enter the U.S. at a port of entry, but does not qualify for admission. However, the act of entering the country without inspection by avoiding designated ports, using fraudulent documents, or otherwise avoiding immigration officials, is a class B misdemeanor, with a statute of limitations of five years. Beyond this period, the act is prosecuted as a civil offense. When an individual is ordered removed and then reenters the U.S. without authorization after the removal order, a felony charge may be incurred.

Refugee vs. Asylum Seeker

Refugees are granted special humanitarian protection after applying from outside of the United States if they have been persecuted, or fear they may be persecuted on account of race, religion, nationality, political opinion, and/or membership in a particular social group. Asylum seekers are refugees who are either already in the United States or are seeking admission at a U.S. port of entry.

Some individuals entering the U.S. on the southern border could potentially qualify for asylum, but lack of English language skills and legal resources often cause these individuals to enter without reporting to the proper authorities.

Families fleeing violence from around the world will often either bring their children across the border without permission, or they will send their children alone in the hopes that the children can build a better life in the United States with relatives or friends. If discovered crossing the border alone, these unaccompanied minors are often required to report to court without legal representation.


Much of the debate around our border policies surrounds DACA recipients and the future of the program. DACA stands for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals and is only available to people who were under the age of thirty-one on June 15, 2012, who entered the U.S. as children under the age of sixteen, and who have lived continuously in the country since June 15, 2007. The program was created by executive order by President Obama when Congress failed to act on the matter. People crossing the border any time after the implementation of the order are not eligible for the program.

While the DACA program allows individuals to apply for temporary work authorization, it does not grant immigration benefits or provide a lawful status to these individuals. Instead, DACA directs the Department of Homeland Security to execute prosecutorial discretion to “defer removal action” for a period of two years (with renewals available). This simply means that these individuals will not be prioritized for removal proceedings. The order continues to be the subject of court challenges, especially after the Trump administration announced that it would discontinue the program in September 2017.

Becoming Legal

One suggestion that often comes up during the immigration debate is that undocumented immigrants or DACA recipients should just “get legal” through the system. Currently, there is no direct pathway to citizenship for DACA recipients, but there may be other avenues through which an individual can pursue a green card, either through family or employment-based sponsorship or through self-petition as a refugee, asylee, special immigrant, or a victim of crime, human trafficking, or abuse. A green card refers to a document that allows a foreign national to live and work permanently in the U.S.; a permanent resident is often referred to as a green card holder. It is important to note that unlawful entry does bar the individual from most options for getting a green card and may require a minimum stay outside of the country if allowed at all.

Citizenship is typically reserved for individuals who were born in the U.S. or born to parents who are U.S. citizens, but certain immigrants can also earn citizenship in a process known as naturalization. After residing in the country for five years (or three years as the spouse of a U.S. citizen), a permanent resident may choose to apply for citizenship if they are eighteen years or older, able to read, write, and speak basic English, and if they are a person of “good moral character.” To become a U.S. citizen, an individual must pass a civics and English test and complete an interview with an immigration officer. Once granted, the individual is expected to participate in a naturalization ceremony to take the Oath of Allegiance to accept the responsibilities and duties that come with being a U.S. citizen.

As citizens, we have many rights and responsibilities, but some of the most important include the responsibility to participate in the democratic process and to stay informed of the issues affecting our families, businesses, and communities.

Lakshmi Challa is the founding and managing attorney of Challa Law Group, an immigration law firm in Glen Allen. She has two adult children: one who lives in California and one in Richmond. She has a passion for helping not only entrepreneurs who want to bring their best ideas to the United States, but those with voices that often go unheard.
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