Migrants vs. Immigrants: What’s the Difference?

Updated on January 5, 2024

At a Glance

  • “Immigrant” and “migrant” have distinct meanings.
  • Migrants move willingly for reasons like employment or education and may return home.
  • Immigrants move with the intention of permanent settlement, undergoing a legal process for visas or green cards.
  • Migrants can include both internal and international movers.

In the current political climate, it is impossible that you have not heard these two terms. They are used more often than appropriate and often interchangeably, which is inaccurate. 

Migrants and immigrants have a few factors in common, but they are two separate groups. Let’s explore what makes these two groups different from each other. 

Is There a Difference Between an Immigrant and a Migrant? 

Yes. They are not the same.

No matter which term you are using, both groups of people have left their country and moved to another country. They are all people deserving of respect and human rights, and they are often moving to another country in the face of some adversity, on a simple search for a better, safer place to call home. Sometimes they leave their country because they want to pursue education or a job, see new people, or make a new home.

Migrants are people who move from their home countries willingly for many different reasons, like pursuing education or a job in a new country. 

Immigrants also move from their countries willingly to settle in another country with the help of a green card, but their reasoning is different. They are moving to the new country legally to settle permanently and work without any restrictions.

Immigrants vs. Migrants

A label is just that, a label. It doesn’t tell the story of the individual moving to another country under duress or in search of a better life. Understanding the distinction between immigrants and migrants will help us understand their humanity, struggles, and hopes, and identify them as not just a label but as fellow human beings with whom you can peacefully coexist and create a nurturing relationship.

What Is an Immigrant? 

Immigrants move from their home country willingly and legally enter another country with the help of visas like U visa, T visa, and so on. They apply for permission to enter and live in the country permanently, which will qualify them to work without any restrictions in their new country. 

They might have any reason behind wanting to resettle in a new country. They could be moving for financial betterment, education, prosperity, or to be reunited with family.

“Immigrant” is not a commonly used term in all countries, but you will hear it very frequently in the U.S. It refers to all the people who are living in a country where they were not born. The other terms associated with immigrants are international migrants, foreigners, and, unfortunately, migrants, which is not at all the same thing. 

Immigrants can indeed refer to any foreign-born people. But in the United States, in many cases, they would be considered nonimmigrants. Immigrants might move and live in a different country permanently. But nonimmigrants will only live there temporarily. They would either enter a country for tourism, business, education, or work. People who are termed immigrants can have very different legal standings and statuses, which vary widely from one country to another. The standards for immigrants in the U.S. can be very different from the U.K.

When immigrants stay in a different country for some time, they can become naturalized citizens. You can file a permanent resident application after living in Germany for seven to eight years. In the United States, it is three to five years.

When an immigrant becomes a naturalized citizen, they are legally allowed to vote and have the same benefits and responsibilities of citizens. Countries like Mexico and the United States even allow these people to retain the citizenship of their home countries. However, countries like China strictly forbid dual citizenship. 

The term most commonly heard in the American news is “illegal immigrant,” which is also different from immigrants. Illegal immigrants differ from regular immigrants because they enter a country unlawfully, or they entered the country legally with a visa and have overstayed their allotted time. Illegal immigrants to the United States have the right to basic services like education and medical care, but they are not eligible for any other benefits.

What Is a Migrant?

Migrant is an umbrella term for people who leave their homes willingly in search of employment, or something else, in a different country. The United States, by far, has the largest population of migrants compared to any other country in the world. This number is four times as much as Saudi Arabia and Germany, which are countries with high numbers of immigrants.

People who can be considered migrants:

  • Internal migration: People who move from one region to another inside the borders of a country.
  • People who move from their home country to another country.

Migrants can sometimes include refugees; however, refugees are not always migrants. If an underage person who moved to another country looking for a new job or education becomes the target of human traffickers, they are considered a refugee, and they will no longer be considered a migrant. That is because a migrant is a person who has willingly moved to a different country and can return to their home country any time they wish to. Refugees have fled their home country and moved to a foreign country because they are not safe in their home countries.

They could have a threat against their life from the authorities or any organization in their homeland. If you consider the European crisis, people leaving the Syria war zone are considered refugees and not migrants under European Union law.

When moving to the United States, this person should apply for a nonimmigrant visa which classifies over 20 different categories of people which include tourists, people who need medical treatment, people traveling for work or business, people who are temporarily employed in the United States or pursuing an education in an American institution.

Differences Between Immigrants and Migrants

Here’s how you can distinguish the two groups of people with one major difference between their intent to move to another country. 

  • A migrant moves to another country temporarily.
  • An immigrant moves to another country intending to settle there permanently.
  • Migrants can be people simply moving from one region to another within their country or people crossing international borders.
  • An immigrant is always crossing an international border and looking for permanent residency in another country.

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Conclusion

When you see reports on the refugee crisis, immigration reform, and migrant workers, remember the easiest way to distinguish them is to recognize their intention of moving to another country. However, that should not be the only factor you consider when you listen to these stories. People have been moving from one country to another for ages, and the only thing that matters is that they are people deserving of respect and rights.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)

1. What Is the Difference Between Migrants and Immigrants?

Migrants and immigrants are two related but distinct terms often used to describe individuals who move from one place to another. The primary difference lies in their intent and duration of stay:

Migrants:

  • Definition: Migrants refer to individuals who move from one location to another, whether it’s within a country or across international borders.
  • Intent: Migrants may have various reasons for their movement, including temporary work, education, exploration, or lifestyle preferences.
  • Duration: Their stay can be temporary, seasonal, or long-term, depending on their purpose for migration.

Immigrants:

  • Definition: Immigrants specifically pertain to individuals who move to a different country with the intention of establishing permanent or long-term residence in that country.
  • Intent: Immigrants seek to become part of the host country’s society, often pursuing citizenship and integration.
  • Duration: They intend to reside in the new country indefinitely, potentially becoming naturalized citizens.

2. Are All Immigrants Considered Migrants?

Yes, all immigrants are considered migrants because immigration involves the act of migrating from one place (the home country) to another (the destination country). However, it’s important to note that not all migrants are immigrants. Immigrants have the specific intent of becoming long-term or permanent residents of the destination country, whereas some migrants may move temporarily for work, education, or other short-term purposes.

3. What Are Some Common Reasons for Migration?

Migration can occur for a wide range of reasons, including economic opportunities, family reunification, education, escaping conflict or persecution, seeking a better quality of life, and more. The motivations for migration vary from person to person and can be influenced by personal, economic, social, or political factors.

4. Is Asylum Seekers a Category of Migrants or Immigrants?

Asylum seekers are considered a category of migrants. They are individuals who have left their home countries due to fear of persecution, violence, or other dangers and have sought protection and refugee status in another country. While their initial status is that of migrants seeking asylum, if their asylum claims are approved, they may eventually become immigrants and be granted asylum in the host country, leading to a long-term or permanent stay.

The legal status of migrants and immigrants can significantly impact their rights and privileges in the host country. Immigrants who obtain legal permanent residency or citizenship typically enjoy more extensive rights, including the right to work, access to social services, and the ability to participate in political processes such as voting. In contrast, migrants with temporary or specific visa statuses may have limited rights and benefits depending on their legal category and the host country’s policies. Asylum seekers have unique legal protections related to their claims for refugee status, which can vary by country.

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Frank Gogol

I’m a firm believer that information is the key to financial freedom. On the Stilt Blog, I write about the complex topics — like finance, immigration, and technology — to help immigrants make the most of their lives in the U.S. Our content and brand have been featured in Forbes, TechCrunch, VentureBeat, and more.