U.S. Immigration Policy

Key terms on U.S. immigration policy. For more terms, please see the Key Terms page.

Refugee: The 1951 Convention Related to the Status of Refugees provides the legal status of refugee to an individual who has left their country of origin and is unable or unwilling to return due to a fear of persecution based on race, religion, nationality, social group, or political opinion. (See key concepts for expanded categories and characteristics.)

Asylee: A non-citizen who is physically present in the United States or seeking admission at a port of entry, who is unable or unwilling to return to their 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 race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group (PSG), or political opinion.

Persecution: A type of harm that is central to applications for asylum. The term is not defined in the U.S. asylum statute. However, it has been defined by U.S. courts to mean “a threat to the life or freedom of, or the infliction of suffering or harm upon, those who differ in a way regarded as offensive.” Generally, such severe forms of harm as imprisonment, torture, and rape as well as death threats are thought of as constituting persecution. Whether less serious actions, such as those thought of as harassment or discrimination, should be considered persecution is decided on a case-by-case basis. To prevail on their applications, asylum-seekers are generally required to prove that they have a “well-founded”, or reasonable, chance of suffering persecution if they are forced to return to their home country.

Affirmative Asylum: The process in which asylum-seekers in the U.S. voluntarily present themselves to the U.S. Government to ask for asylum. The affirmative application for asylum is made to the Asylum Office of the Citizenship and Immigration Services division of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). Non-citizens who have not been apprehended by DHS are eligible to file an affirmative asylum application.

Port of Entry: Any location in the United States or its territories that is designated as a point of entry for non-citizens and U.S. citizens. All district offices and service centers are also considered ports, because they become locations of entry for non-citizens adjusting to immigrant status.

Credible Fear (or “significant possibility”) Interview: An abbreviated interview of a non-citizen who arrives in the United States with false or no documents (and is therefore subject to Expedited Removal) and who expresses a fear of persecution in one’s own country or a desire to apply for asylum. The interview is conducted by an Asylum Officer (of USCIS) and a successful non-citizen is entitled to a full asylum hearing before an Immigration Judge.

Expedited Removal: A process of rapid deportation by Customs and Border Patrol officers of undocumented migrants or immigrants who have committed misrepresentation or fraud without having a hearing in front of an immigration judge. This procedure can also be used to deny migrants entry into the United States. In 2019 the Expedited Removal policy expanded coverage to the entire country, meaning that immigrants anywhere who have not lived in the US for more than 2 continuous years could be subject to deportation.

Defensive Asylum Application: This is an asylum application filed with an immigration judge during removal proceedings in immigration court as a defense against removal from the United States. Individuals are generally placed into defensive asylum processing in one of 2 ways:

  1. They are referred to an Immigration Judge by United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) after they have been determined to be ineligible for asylum at the end of the affirmative asylum process, or
  2. They are placed in removal proceedings because they:
    (a) Were apprehended (or caught) in the United States or at a U.S. port of entry without proper legal documents or in violation of their immigration status, or
    (b) were caught by Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) trying to enter the United States without proper documentation, were placed in the expedited removal process, and were found to have a credible fear of persecution or torture by an Asylum Officer.

Humanitarian Parole: Used sparingly to bring someone who is otherwise inadmissible into the United States for a temporary period of time due to a compelling emergency. There must be an urgent humanitarian reason or significant public benefit for the parole to be granted.

Temporary Protected Status (TPS): A legal grant of permission for nationals of particular countries temporarily to remain in the U.S. Specific countries are designated for TPS by the Attorney General after consultation with government agencies. Countries are selected where unstable or dangerous conditions would pose a temporary threat to returning persons. Under US law, these conditions include:

  1. Ongoing armed conflict (such as civil war)
  2. An environmental disaster (such as an earthquake or hurricane), or an epidemic
  3. Other “extraordinary” and temporary conditions

Grants of TPS are initially made for periods of 6 to 18 months and can be extended. Nationals of designated TPS countries typically must have been in the U.S. since before an established cut-off date. For more information, see here.

Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP)/"Remain in Mexico" Program: Also known as “Remain in Mexico”, is a U.S. Government action whereby certain foreign individuals entering or seeking admission to the U.S. from Mexico – illegally or without proper documentation – may be returned to Mexico and wait outside of the U.S. for the duration of their immigration proceedings, where Mexico will provide them with all appropriate humanitarian protections for the duration of their stay. For more information, see here.

Metering: Customs and Border Patrol officials accept limited numbers of asylum seekers a day—in a process that is known as metering—often communicating directly with Mexican officials regarding these numbers. As lines of asylum seekers grew longer in border cities, Mexican authorities and civil society groups responded by providing humanitarian assistance and creating informal waitlists. For more information, see here.