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Published onOct 20, 2022

The language used to describe people’s immigration or citizenship status can reinforce stereotypes, dehumanize individuals and groups, render them invisible or hyper visible, and regulate their access to civil and human rights. Using inclusive language can help reframe discussions around borders and national belonging and intervene in the larger meaning-making processes that construct and maintain an evolving and interconnected network of notions and assumptions about immigrants, refugees, and asylum seekers. These terms mean different things and are not interchangeable.

Asylum seeker

a person seeking international protection; a person who has applied for asylum but not yet received a decision; not all asylum seekers will become refugees


a person fleeing conflict or persecution; all refugees are first asylum seekers


a person moving away from their usual place of residence for reasons other than conflict or persecution, may be voluntary or forced; not synonymous with refugee

In general, avoid referring to people’s immigration status unless contextually relevant and essential. Avoid inaccurate and demeaning terminology, such as that listed in the table below.



alien; noncitizen1

immigrant; person; individual


undocumented; irregular

anchor baby

child of undocumented immigrant

chain migration

family-based migration (if relevant)

ethnic; exotic; foreign

d o not use to describe people; name the country of origin instead

natural; naturalization

a void except in reference to US immigration law

host country

country of destination; destination country

home country; sending country

country of origin

1 These terms were previously used by the US government but have been phased out in favor of the terms in the “preferred” column


Autheman, C., Saad, N., & Dalal, M. (Eds.). (2014). Media-Friendly glossary on migration. Panos Europe Institute and The United Alliance of Civilizations (UNAOC).

Global Press Journal. (n.d.). Global press style guide.

Minority Rights Group International. (2020, May 18). 5.3: Terminology matters: From ‘economic migrants’ to refugees. Covering Migration.

National Association of Hispanic Journalists. (2021, March). Cultural competence handbook.

Pierigh, F., & Speicher, S. (2017, November). Changing the narrative: Media representation of refugees and migrants in Europe. World Association for Christian Communication - Europe Region and the Churches’ Commission for Migrants in Europe.

United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. (n.d.). Who We Help. UNHCR.

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