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What's the right way to refer to myself under immigration laws?

Labels; we all use them. Applied to file folders, there purpose is clear. If they're applied to people, it can lead to misconceptions, misunderstandings and headaches, physical and legal.

Still, where immigration issues are concerned, labels are common. Whether we like it or not, there is recognized public interest in being able to know whether a person is a U.S. citizen, has permission to be here legally, is just visiting, or has overstayed the welcome granted by a visa. If a person has no legal documentation at all, that's something the courts have said the government has a right to know. Immigration checks have to be expected. At the same time, rights have to be protected.

Some key terms

Two terms that can be a source of confusion are immigrant and nonimmigrant. If you are an immigrant, you are also known as a permanent resident alien. This means you are from a foreign country but have the right and privilege to take up permanent residency in the U.S. Another term commonly used for this status is lawful permanent resident. If you meet certain requirements, which vary with an individual's circumstances, you may be able to apply for citizenship.

If you are a nonimmigrant, you can be legally in the U.S. for only a short while and for a specific purpose. Those under this classification include individuals touring or just passing through the country. Students, temporary workers, foreign media reporters and those in foreign exchange programs fit this bill. So do foreign government workers and international trade representatives. If you are the spouse-to-be of a U.S. citizen, you will have nonimmigrant status to begin with.

Whether you hold immigrant or nonimmigrant status, you need to know your rights and restrictions. And if you should find yourself suffering headaches over improper labels, contact an experienced attorney for help.

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