Politics & Government

Refugee vs. green card holder: a primer on immigration terms

Travelers coming into San Francisco hear 'Welcome to America'

Trump protesters chant "Welcome to America" with international fliers arriving at San Francisco International Airport on Sunday, January 29, 2017.
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Trump protesters chant "Welcome to America" with international fliers arriving at San Francisco International Airport on Sunday, January 29, 2017.

President Donald Trump’s immigration order has brought a number of common immigration terms into the spotlight. Here’s a brief primer based on information from the U.S. Department of State.


Refugees are foreigners who engender special humanitarian concern because they face persecution in their home country based on race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group. The screening process for refugees is more rigorous than the process used for other immigrants.

To qualify as a refugee, immigrants typically are interviewed first by the United Nations’ refugee agency. Several U.S. agencies then conduct background screening to determine whether they might pose a security threat, including whether they have past immigration violations or criminal infractions.

Applicants undergo interviews with the Department of Homeland Security. If applicants check out, their fingerprints are submitted to the FBI, DHS and the U.S. Department of Defense for further screening.

Applicants undergo cultural orientation classes and a medical check before being assigned a location for resettlement.

Green card

This document signifies that an immigrant has become a lawful permanent resident of the United States. Refugees cleared for resettlement can obtain green cards, but so can other types of immigrants.

To get a green card, immigrants other than refugees generally must have a job offer or a close relative already living in the United States. Priority for obtaining the card is based on an applicant’s country of origin, how closely related the applicant is to a U.S. citizen, or how vital the person’s job is to the U.S. economy.

Once applicants apply for a green card (and after an often lengthy wait for space to become available), they must submit fingerprints to the federal government and have their pictures taken. The government checks the fingerprints against a variety of databases in an effort to ensure an applicant is not a threat to security. In-person interviews are a common part of the process.


A visa is a document that grants a foreigner permission to enter the United States and stay for a set amount of time. There are two types of visas: immigrant visas, such as green cards, that allow for permanent stays; and nonimmigrant visas, which include student visas and tourist visas. Screening for nonimmigrant visas can vary by country of origin. The screening requires an applicant to submit paperwork, a passport and a photo. Interviews often are required. Biometric screening is regularly used to search for potential threats.

Phillip Reese: 916-321-1137, @PhillipHReese