With more and more peoples from around the world calling Buffalo their new home, it can be easy to confuse immigration terms and definitions.

Just what are immigrants, refugees, asylum-seekers, and undocumented immigrants and how are they different?


An immigrant visa acts as “permission” by the U.S. government to enter the country. The process is extensive. First immigrants must be sponsored by a U.S. citizen or a U.S. employer in order to begin applying for a visa. After the petition is approved, immigrants begin submitting requested documents, filling out forms, and paying the required fees to process their visa request. After this is done, they are interviewed. Following the interview, they must wait to be approved or denied an immigration visa. According to the State Department, the U.S. also limits the number of visas per year, accepting a certain number of visas from each country, so while it might take a longer period of time to be granted a visa in one country, it could be comparatively shorter in another.

An immigration visa has an expiration date, which is why many immigrants seeking residence in the United States begin applying for a green card, which grants permanent residence. A green card paves the way for future citizenship in the U.S.


The United Nations defines a refugee as “someone who has been forced to flee his or her country because of persecution, war, or violence. A refugee has a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group.” Refugees are different from immigrants in that they have very little choice in leaving their homes. Because of this danger, many refugees also do not have an opportunity to return to their home countries.

Many refugees linger for years, even decades, in refugee camps in countries bordering their home country. According to the U.N., most stay in the camps until the danger in their home countries has past and they can return home. A smaller percentage of refugees are resettled in the country where they fled. The U.N. also reports that less than 1% of refugees are resettled to a third country, such as the U.S., Canada, or others. Of these third countries that take in refugees, the U.S. accepts more than half, or “more than all other resettlement countries combined,” according to the U.S. State Department.

Refugees are resettled through a cooperation between the U.N. and the U.S. government. The U.S. accepts a set number of refugees per year, decided by Washington. In Buffalo, some of the most common refugees groups originate from Burma, Nepal, and Somalia.

Refugees are not granted citizenship upon arrival in the U.S.; instead, they are granted permanent residence status, in the hopes that after at least five years of residency, they will seek citizenship.


Like refugees, asylum-seekers flee from their home countries because of a credible threat to their safety and well-being. They may leave their home countries because of persecution, conflict, or war. Unlike refugees, who are given permanent residence status by the U.S. before entering the country, asylum-seekers enter the country under student, business, tourist or other documentation. When they get to the United States, they declare their intention to apply for asylum to U.S. immigration officials. After they do this, all of their previous documentation is stripped away and they begin a process to receive permanent status. Until they are granted this status, they also cannot apply for public benefits. As a result, asylum-seekers are often forced to rely on friends, family, and charitable institutions for support while they wait.

Undocumented immigrants:

Unlike immigrants, refugees, and asylum-seekers, undocumented immigrants enter the country illegally, without the “permission” that a visa or permanent residence card provided by the U.S. government affords. According to the Pew Research Center, there were 11.3 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S. in 2014. The Pew Research Center also reported that nearly half of these immigrants were Mexican, with others journeying to the U.S. from Asia, the Caribbean, Central America, and some Middle Eastern countries.

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