Alien (law)

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This article is about the legal term alien referring to citizens of other countries; for the beings from other planets see extraterrestrial life

In law, an alien is a person who owes political allegiance to another country or is not a native or citizen of the land in which they live. Aliens may live legally or illegally in their host country. Permanent residency refers to a person's visa status: the person is allowed to reside indefinitely within a country despite not having citizenship. A person with such status is known as a permanent resident. Aliens and permanent residents often have access to becoming a citizen of their adopted country depending on the length of time they have been in the new country.

The concept of a person as an alien in a country other than their homeland is not a modern one. Greeks formerly referred to any non-Greeks as barbarians and the Japanese have the concept of gaijin for foreigners. That said, there is a long history of considering aliens in national and international law dating back to the Roman Empire. Modern creations like the European Union (EU) highlight the importance of alien status in law, as all citizens of the EU have the right to travel, live, and work in any member state, with wages and working conditions to be the same for citizens and aliens. This arrangement is a significant advance in securing human rights for all, and offers a possible model for other regions of the world to follow suit. Ultimately, in a world of peace and harmony, all people are accepted and embraced wherever they go; there are no aliens, only a diversity of people living for the common good.


Terms used to describe aliens include:

  • migrant workers
  • permanent residents
  • economic migrants
  • boat people
  • illegal immigrant [1]
  • clandestine workers[2]
  • sans papiers[3]
  • unauthorized immigrant/ migrant/ alien/ worker/ resident
  • paperless immigrant/ migrant/ alien/ worker/ resident
  • undocumented immigrant/ migrant/ alien / worker/ resident
  • criminal alien
  • immigrant "without immigration status"
  • illegrant "illegal immigrant" (slang) "Illegal alien" is the official term in legislation and the border patrol for a person who has entered the country illegally or is residing in the United States illegally after entering legally (for example, using a tourist visa and remaining after the visa expires).


People choose to become aliens for any number of reasons. Often their homeland is no longer a welcoming place or they see their new destination as a significant improvement over their homeland.


One motive of immigration is to escape civil war or repression in the country of origin. Non-economic push factors include persecution (religious and otherwise), frequent abuse, bullying, oppression, ethnic cleansing, and even genocide, and risks to civilians during war. Political motives traditionally motivate refugee flows - to escape dictatorship for instance.

In the early twenty-first century, the largest source of refugees to the U.S. has been Africa (Somalia, Liberia, Sudan, and Ethiopia).[4]

Family reunion

Some immigrants seek to live with loved ones, such as a spouse or other family members.[5][6] As a result, many people live as aliens in the birth country of their spouse.


Another reason for immigration is to escape poverty. Natural disasters and overpopulation can amplify poverty-driven migration flows. According to CBS 60 Minutes, U.S. Marine Lance Corporal Jose Gutierrez, one of the first U.S. servicemen to die in combat in Iraq, a former street child in Guatemala having been orphaned at age eight, first entered the U.S. as an illegal immigrant in 1997 to escape poverty, and dreamed of being an architect.[7] Sometimes the person moves over the border because the wage-labor ratio is much higher in the neighboring country, as is the case with the U.S. illegal immigration.

Economic opportunity

Improved international relations and travel technology makes it possible for people to work in other countries as aliens. These people move away from their home countries to seek job opportunities in other lands. These moves may be permanent or temporary as people move with seasonal labor. Some people working as aliens include reporters on foreign assignment, diplomats, translators, and employees of multinational corporations.

Rights and obligations of permanent residents

Depending on the country, permanent residents usually have the same legal rights as citizens except for the rights to:

  • vote (some countries allow this)
  • stand for public office
  • apply for public sector employment (some countries allow this)
  • apply for employment involving national security
  • own certain classes of real estate
  • hold the passport of that country
  • access the country's consular protection (some countries allow this)

Permanent residents may be required to fulfill specific residence requirements in order to retain their legal status. In some cases, permanent residency may be conditional on a certain type of employment or maintenance of a business.

Some countries have compulsory military service for Permanent Residents and Citizens. For example, Singapore requires all males who are citizens and permanent residents to complete a compulsory two years of service in the army known as National Service (NS) upon attaining 18 years of age. However, most first generation permanent residents are exempted, and only their sons are held liable for NS. In a similar vein, the United States has Selective Service, a compulsory registration for military service, which is required of all male citizens and permanent residents ages 18 to 25; this requirement applies even to those residing in the country illegally.[8] Applications for citizenship may be denied or otherwise impeded if the applicant cannot prove that they have complied with this requirement.

Permanent residents may be required to reside in the country offering them residence for a specified minimum length of time (as in Australia).

Permanent residents may lose their status if they fail to comply with residency or other obligations imposed on them. For example:

  • they leave the country beyond a maximum number of days
  • they commit crimes so as they may be subject to deportation or removal from the country

Access to citizenship

Usually permanent residents may apply for citizenship by naturalization after a period of residency in the country concerned. Dual citizenship may or may not be permitted.

In many nations an application for naturalization can be denied on character grounds, sometimes resulting in individuals that are not in danger of being deported but may not proceed to citizenship. In the United States, the residency requirements for citizenship may vary according to the basis for residency; for example, those who achieved legal permanent residence by marriage may apply for citizenship three years after residency was granted, while others must wait five years. Those who have served in the armed forces may qualify for an expedited process allowing citizenship after only one year.[9]


The characters for Gaikokujin.

Gaijin (外人 IPA: [ˈɡaɪʥin]) or gaikokujin (外国人) are Japanese words meaning "foreigner." The words can refer to nationality or ethnicity. The word is often the subject of debate as to its appropriateness, particularly in its shortened form. The word gaikokujin (外国人) is composed of gaikoku (外国, foreign country) and hito/jin (人, person), so the word literally means "foreign person." Gaijin (外人) is a common abbreviation of gaikokujin.

The word was initially not applied to foreigners, and historically, the Portuguese, the first Europeans to visit Japan, were known as nanbanjin (南蛮人, "southern barbarians"). When British and Dutch adventurers such as William Adams arrived in Japan 50 years later in the early seventeenth century, they were usually known as kōmōjin (紅毛人, "red-haired people"), a term still used in the Min Nan (Taiwanese) dialect of Chinese today.

The use of gaijin is not limited to non-Japanese in Japan; Japanese speakers commonly refer to non-Japanese as gaijin even while they are overseas. Also, people of Japanese descent native to other countries (especially those countries with large Japanese communities) might also call non-descendants gaijin, as a counterpart to nikkei. Interestingly, second (nisei) or third (sansei) generation ethnic Japanese outside Japan may be referred to as gaijin if it is intended to emphasize the fact that they are culturally foreign.

Enemy aliens

In law an "enemy alien" is a citizen of a country which is in a state of conflict with the land in which he or she is located. Usually, but not always, the countries are in a state of declared war.

Well known examples of enemy aliens were the Japanese citizens residing in the United States during World War II. Many of these Japanese and Japanese-Americans were imprisoned in internment camps by President Roosevelt during wartime, alongside many Italian-Americans. It is important, however, to recognize that the Japanese-Americans and Italian-Americans were not actually "aliens," as they held American citizenship; only the non-American citizens can be correctly termed "enemy aliens."

Persons who lived in the USA but who held citizenship in enemy country during World War II, were required to have a Enemy Alien card and register monthly with authorities. Similar regulations existed in Canada and Mexico.

Illegal immigration

Illegal immigration refers to immigration across national borders in a way that violates the immigration laws of the destination country. Under this definition, an illegal immigrant is a foreigner who either has illegally crossed an international political border, be it by land, sea, or air, or a foreigner who has entered a country legally but then overstays his/her visa in order to live and/or work therein.

In politics, the term may imply a larger set of social issues and time constraints with disputed consequences in areas such as economy, social welfare, education, health care, slavery, prostitution, crime, legal protections, voting rights, public services, and human rights. Illegal emigration would be leaving a country in a manner that violates the laws of the country being exited.


  1. Call for illegal immigrant study. BBC News, August 22, 2006. Retrieved June 19, 2018.
  2. Reem Saad, Egyptian Workers in Paris: Pilot Ethnography SRC, American University in Cairo, May 2005. Retrieved June 19, 2018.
  3. Angelique Chrisafis, Crackdown on 'sans papiers' The Guardian, November 16, 2010. Retrieved June 19, 2018.
  4. Don Barnett, A New Era Of Refugee Resettlement Immigration Daily. Retrieved June 19, 2018.
  5. N.C. Aizenman, Young Migrants Risk All to Reach U.S.: Thousands Detained After Setting Out From Central America Without Parents Washington Post, August 28, 2006. Retrieved June 19, 2018.
  6. Love Unites Them, La Migra Separates Them El Observador, November 30, 2006. Retrieved June 19, 2018.
  7. Rebecca Leung, The Death Of Lance Cpl. Gutierrez: Simon Reports On Non-Citizen Soldiers CBS 60 Minutes, April 23, 2003.
  8. Who Must Register Selective Service System: Registration Information. Retrieved June 19, 2018.
  9. Path to U.S. Citizenship US Citizenship and Immigration Services. Retrieved June 19, 2018.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

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  • Cull, Nicholas J. and Davíd Carrasco, ed. Alambrista and the US-Mexico Border: Film, Music, and Stories of Undocumented Immigrants. New Mexico: U. of New Mexico Press, 2004.
  • Espenshade, Thomas J. "Unauthorized Immigration to the United States" Annual Review of Sociology 21(1995): 195-.
  • Flores, William V. "New Citizens, New Rights: Undocumented Immigrants and Latino Cultural Citizenship" Latin American Perspectives 30(2)(2003): 87-100
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  • Ngai, Mae M. Impossible Subjects: Illegal Aliens and the Making of Modern America. Princeton University Press, 2014. ISBN 978-0691160825
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  • Myers, Dowell, Immigrants and Boomers: Forging a New Social Contract for the Future of America. Russell Sage Foundation, 2007. ISBN 978-0871546364
  • Rosello, Mireille. "Representing Illegal Immigrants in France: From Clandestins to L'affaire Des Sans-Papiers De Saint-Bernard" Journal of European Studies 28(1998) ISSN 959525126
  • Tranaes, T. and K.F. Zimmermann, (eds) Migrants, Work, and the Welfare State. Odense: University Press of Southern Denmark, 2004.
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