Essential terms for navigating and understanding the debate on U.S. immigration policy.

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There are currently 31 terms in this directory
Asylum Metering
The term used by U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) to describe the process by which it limits the number of people who can request asylum at a port of entry at a Mexico-U.S. border crossing on a daily basis. International law guarantees that anyone who steps foot on U.S. soil can request asylum; therefore, in order to carry out metering, CBP stations guards at border crossings to prevent migrants from stepping onto U.S. soil. The legality of asylum metering is challenged by many immigration lawyers who point out that the right to apply for asylum in the U.S. is guaranteed by U.S. law (U.S. Code, Title 8, Section 1225) and international law (1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees).
Credible Fear Interview
The first major step in the asylum process. Historically this has been carried out by asylum officers who work within CBP and are trained to perform intake at ports of entry where migrants initiate their claims. If the applicant is found to have “credible fear” of returning home, the person is given a date to appear in court and may remain in the country while moving through the court system. Credible fear can be established using five categories recognized by the U.S. government: persecution based on race, religion, nationality, political affiliation, and membership in a particular social group. The definition of “social group” varies from one presidential administration to another but has included members of the LGBTQ community, child soldiers, and women subjected to domestic violence.
Customs and Border Protection (CBP)
The largest law enforcement agency in the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, CBP is the country’s primary border control organization. It houses several distinct agencies including Border Patrol (BP), which monitors activity between ports of entry, and the Office of Field Operations (OFO), which oversees customs officers who monitor activity at ports of entry.
Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA)
An immigration policy enacted through executive order by the Obama administration that allows some individuals who are unlawfully in the U.S. to receive a renewable two-year period of “deferred action” from deportation. These individuals are also eligible for work permits. There are several requirements for eligibility. The individual must: be under the age of 31 on June 15, 2012 (the date the program was initiated), have lived continuously in the U.S. since June 15, 2007, have unlawful presence in the U.S. before the applicant’s 16th birthday, complete high school or pass a GED exam, and have not been convicted of a felony or serious misdemeanor. The program was repealed by the Trump administration on March 5, 2018 — a development that prompted several lawsuits. In June of 2020, the Supreme Court ruled that the repeal of DACA was “arbitrary and capricious” and that the program could continue to accept renewal applications as well as first time enrollees.
Deferred Enforced Departure (DED)
A form of relief from deportation, DED allows certain individuals from designated countries and regions facing political or civil conflict or natural disaster to temporarily stay in the U.S. DED functions much like Temporary Protected Status (TPS) but is administered through the president’s foreign relations power. President Trump moved to end the program, and in March 2019 he issued a memorandum extending the wind-down period for DED through March 30, 2020. However, in early 2021, the incoming Biden administration reinstated the program.
Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors Act (DREAM Act)
Initially proposed in 2001, this legislation has been presented in several iterations over the last two decades. While there are differences in various versions of the bill, each seeks to grant permanent legal residence—sometimes called “a pathway to citizenship”—to undocumented immigrants who were brought to the U.S. as minors. In order to be eligible, most versions of the bill require that each potential beneficiary: not be eligible for Temporary Protected Status, have entered the U.S. before adulthood (18 in some versions of the bill; 16 in others), present proof of residency in the U.S. for at least four consecutive years since arrival, be registered in Selective Service (males only), be between the ages of 12 and 35 when the bill is enacted, have a high school diploma or GED, and be of “good moral character.”
Established in 1997, this is a web-based system run by the federal government that allows U.S. employers to determine the eligibility of their employees, both U.S. and foreign citizens, to work in the U.S. The program is voluntary, though there are significant voices in the immigration debate pushing to make it mandatory.
Enforcement and Removal Operations (EROs)
A division of ICE responsible for enforcing federal immigration laws and ensuring the removal of immigrants who are in the country illegally. These special task forces are strategically placed and mobilized in order to carry out their operations—often called “raids”—to locate, apprehend, and remove undocumented immigrants. ERO can also refer to the act of removing an undocumented immigrant from the country.
Family Case Management Program (FCMP)
A program through which case managers worked to ensure that individuals complied with their legal obligations as they moved through their immigration proceedings. Steps in the compliance program included check-ins with ICE, attendance at immigration court hearings, and acceptance of removal orders. These measures were overseen by trained caseworkers who could also ensure that participants in the program remained in their community of residence with their family. This program is often cited as an alternative to immigrant detention. It operated in five metropolitan areas (Baltimore/D.C., Los Angeles, New York, Miami, and Chicago) and achieved 99 percent compliance for check-ins and 100 percent compliance for court hearings. The program cost $36 a day per person, compared with $133 per day per person for detention. FCMP was terminated by the Trump administration.
Flores Settlement Agreement (FSA)
A 1997 settlement that resulted from a court case, Flores v. Reno, which established the illegality of detaining migrant minors at the U.S. border for more than 20 days. The agreement also established various standards for detention. A federal circuit court ruling determined that this agreement pertained to both minors traveling with families and unaccompanied minors. The Trump administration challenged this court decision as it sought a legal basis for a “get tough” policy intended to discourage refugee flow to our southern border. The goal was to establish the right to separate minors from their families in the name of a “zero tolerance” or family separation policy. This court challenge ultimately failed at the court of appeals level and today the Biden administration is not objecting to the Flores standards or separating minors from their families. However, the number of refugees seeking to cross our southern border is rising as conditions deteriorate in Central America. Intact families are sometimes turned away to fend for themselves but unaccompanied minors generally are not. As the numbers of minors allowed to cross the border surges, finding adequate interim housing for them, achieving temporary placements in the U.S. within 20 days and other aspects of Flores compliance have proven extraordinarily difficult. Republican critics have forced Biden into a defensive crouch on this issue and his senior administrators have had to argue that their struggles to comply with Flores constitute a challenge but not a crisis.
ICE Detainers
A written request that a local jail or other law enforcement agency detain an individual for an additional 48 hours after his or her ordinary release date in order to provide ICE agents extra time to decide whether to take the individual into federal custody for removal purposes.
Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRAIRA)
A 1996 law that established three- and ten-year bars on re-entry for immigrants who accrue “unlawful presence” in the U.S., leave the country, and then want to re-enter the country lawfully. Generally, an immigrant who enters the U.S. without authorization, or who overstays a period of authorized admission, will be deemed to have accrued unlawful presence. Individuals who accrue more than 180 days, but less than one year, of unlawful presence are barred from re-entering the U.S. for three years; those who accrue more than one year of unlawful presence are barred for ten years.
Immigration Act of 1924
Also known as the Johnson-Reed Act, this was legislation that blocked immigration from Asia, set quotas on the number of immigrants from the rest of the Eastern Hemisphere and provided funding to carry out other long-established immigration restrictions. The measure set a total annual immigration quota of 165,000 for countries outside of the Western Hemisphere—an 80-percent reduction from pre-WWI levels. It was the need to enforce this legislation that triggered the creation of the U.S. Border Patrol.
Immigration Act of 1990
First introduced in 1989 by Senator Ted Kennedy, this legislation reformed the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 by increasing overall immigration to allow 700,000 immigrants to come to the U.S. during the first year of enactment and 675,000 annually thereafter. This act also established family-based immigration visas, a diversity lottery, and the first set of employment-based visas.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE)
The U.S. law enforcement agency principally responsible for the enforcement of customs and immigration laws. While the agency’s immigration enforcement activities gain the most media attention, ICE also conducts a wide range of customs operations, including drug seizures, fraudulent product seizures, and searches for illegally transported antiquities and child pornography, to name a few.
Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965
Signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson, this was the first major immigration legislation in nearly half a century. It abolished the National Origins Formula, established in 1924, which set limits on how many immigrants could enter the U.S. from various regions of the world, including Asia, Southern and Eastern Europe, and other non-Western European areas. These limits were widely seen as discriminatory and were described by the U.S. State Department as formulas that were set “to preserve the ideal of American [Northwestern European] homogeneity.” Widespread awareness of the discriminatory nature of the National Origins Formula and support for its repeal are often linked to the rise of the Civil Rights Movement.
Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 (IRCA)
This was the first major immigration legislation since the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965. This law made it illegal to knowingly hire undocumented immigrants by establishing financial penalties for doing so, strengthened border security, and granted legal status to nearly 3 million immigrants who were in the country illegally and had arrived prior to January 1, 1982.
LIFE Act of 2000 (245-I Bill)
This legislation enabled certain immigrants present in the U.S. who would not normally qualify to apply for legal status to obtain permanent residency regardless of: how they entered the U.S.; whether or not they were working in the U.S. without authorization; and whether or not they failed to continuously maintain lawful status since entry. The program required an immigration petition and a $1000 fee.
Merits Hearing
A crucial point in the asylum application process at which a migrant presents written testimony and supporting evidence to substantiate his or her initial “credible fear” claim. An immigration judge reviews the sworn testimony and evidence, and may seek to further question the applicant in the courtroom. A Merits Hearing is generally the last step in the asylum process. A decision on whether or not to grant asylum is generally rendered once the Merits Hearing is complete.
Migration Protection Protocols (MPP)
Also known as the “Remain in Mexico” policy, MPP was established by the Trump administration in 2018. It mandated that asylum seekers stay in Mexico to await their U.S. asylum hearings to alleviate the surge of migrant families crossing into the U.S. at the southern border. On February 28, 2020, a federal appeals court determined that MPP is inconsistent with federal law and “should be enjoined in its entirety.” The Trump administration appealed the injunction to the Supreme Court, which ruled on March 11, 2020, that MPP could be implemented while challenges to the policy play out in the lower courts. Immediately after entering office, Biden cancelled the program.
National Origins Formula
In the years leading up to the Immigration Act of 1924, the U.S. set general immigration quotas for foreign-born persons of each nationality that resided in the country. Through the Emergency Quota Act of 1921, the government restricted immigration to 3 percent of the population as of 1910.
Northern Triangle
Refers to a region of Central America that includes Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador—all countries with high rates of violent crime that drive high rates of emigration. Though migrants from these countries make up less than 10 percent of those who seek asylum in the U.S., they have sometimes drawn wide attention by traveling in large groups, or “caravans,” for safety.
Operation Gatekeeper
Announced in September 1994, this federal law enforcement program was established in the wake of NAFTA. It provided funding for Border Patrol to hire more agents and began the radical transformation of the size of that agency from roughly 4,000 agents to present-day levels of approximately 20,000. The operation also provided funding to build barriers along the southern border and to improve security technology to help stop illegal crossings. Most of these efforts focused on the San Diego sector, which then saw the greatest number of illegal crossings into the US.
REAL ID Act of 2005
While the central purpose of this act was to modify the federal government’s laws pertaining to security, authentication and issuance standards for drivers’ licenses and identity documents, the law had sweeping implications for immigration policy and border security. The act empowered the Secretary of Homeland Security to waive other federal laws in order to move forward more rapidly with barrier construction at the southern border, changed limits on work visas, tightened procedures for applying for asylum, and facilitated the deportation of undocumented immigrants believed to be associated with terrorism.
Remain in Mexico Policy
See Migrant Protection Protocols
Section 1325 of Title 8, U.S. Criminal Code
This section of the U.S. Criminal Code makes it a criminal act to cross a U.S. border without authorization. Several 2020 Democratic presidential candidates, prompted by Julian Castro, came out in support of repealing Section 1325 and making an unauthorized crossing a civil violation instead of a criminal violation. Then-candidate Joe Biden did not support repeal.
Secure Fence Act of 2006
A law passed with broad bipartisan support that provided funding for the construction of 700 miles of fencing along the southern border.
Temporary Protected Status (TPS)
A program that allows undocumented immigrants whose home countries are enduring armed conflict or natural disaster to stay in the U.S. on a temporary basis. Access to the program is determined by the Secretary of Homeland Security and can be renewed by that agency. Roughly 317,000 people from 10 countries had TPS as of the end of 2019. The Trump administration announced plans to end the program for nearly all of them. Expiration dates began on March 3, 2020, affecting those from Yemen first, but various lawsuits blocked the administration’s decision. In early 2021, the Biden administration stopped plans to end the program and instead made more immigrants eligible.
Three- and Ten-Year Bars
See Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRAIRA).
United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS)
This federal agency administers the country’s immigration and naturalization system. When the Immigration and Naturalization Service was dissolved in the aftermath of the 911 attacks, its purview was divided up among three agencies created under the newly formed Department of Homeland Security: USCIS, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and Customs and Border Protection (CBP).
Zero Tolerance Policy
This Trump administration policy mandated that all illegal crossings be referred to the Department of Justice for prosecution. Under this policy, undocumented asylum seekers were among those prosecuted and imprisoned. This included families and, because of the Flores Agreement, the children in these families could not be detained beyond 20 days, so they were placed under the care of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). These “family separations” became synonymous with the policy itself. In June 2018, Trump signed an executive order canceling the policy in the face of intense public outcry. Six days later, a federal judge issued an injunction against the practice.
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