migrant vs immigrant

Migrant vs. Immigrant: What’s the Difference?

Whether it’s in the news or an overheard conversation, it’s not uncommon to hear the words migrant and immigrant used interchangeably.

But they don’t mean the same thing.

Regardless of which term is used, both describe living, breathing human beings—mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers, grandparents and grandchildren—all who have left one place in search of a better life in another place.

Sometimes they leave to seek a better job, an education, an escape from danger, or a reunion with family. Sometimes it’s the fulfillment of a lifelong dream.

Whatever the reason, here’s what you need to know about migrants and immigrants, the difference between the two, and why the distinction is so important.

What is a Migrant?

Migrant is a broad term that applies to an individual who willingly leaves home and moves from one place to another, most often in search of employment.

This includes people who:

  • Move from one region to another within the borders of their own country (internal migration); or
  • Move from their country of birth to another country or countries.

Sometimes, the term migrant can also include refugees, but the term refugee does not always include migrants. For example, an underage individual might begin their journey as a migrant in search of work or education and then become a victim of human trafficking, then qualifying under the term refugee.

A migrant is an individual who is purposefully on the move in search of a better life, but can return home at any time if they so choose.

In the United States, this individual would obtain a non-immigrant visa (NIV), which includes more than 20 different categories of classifications, including the following:

  • Tourism
  • The need for medical treatment
  • Travel for business
  • Temporary employment
  • Education

What is an Immigrant?

An immigrant is an individual who willingly leaves their country of origin and legally enters another country where they are granted permission to permanently resettle, thus qualifying them to work without restriction.

Their reasons for wanting to resettle can be many—from a longing for economic prosperity or a better education, to the fulfillment of a dream or reunion with family.

Key differences Between Migrants and Immigrants

An immigrant always begins the journey as a migrant, but a migrant doesn’t always end the journey as an immigrant. To review, here are a few differences:

  • Migrant = temporary movement
  • Immigrant = permanent residency
  • Migration can occur within the borders of the same country, or cross international borders
  • Immigration occurs when a person crosses an international border and becomes a permanent resident in another country

Words and definitions matter. And the way we describe the individuals that come and go across our borders matters, too.

Understanding these terms helps us to know better how we can serve each person, whether a migrant or an immigrant. But a label is never the full story. And so even if we know the category someone might fall under, it is important to always be listening, to be learning, to hold their humanity and their story with tenderness and attention. To look beyond the label to the person. And to see how their story just might connect with our own.

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