Migrants vs. Immigrants: What’s the Difference?

Posted by in Immigrants | Updated on May 26, 2023
At a Glance: Migrants are people who move from their home countries willingly for many different reasons, like pursuing education. Immigrants also move to another country with the help of a green card, but their reasoning is different.

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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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.