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Borders and Populations

alternatives to detention (ATD)

Alternatives to detention (ATD) are policies or practices that prevent the holding of migrants in detention centers while they are involved in immigration court proceedings. Many ATD officially recognized by the United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) are subcontracted to subsidiaries of private prison companies and consist of restrictive technologies (such as ankle monitors) and frequent reporting requirements. If writing about these programs, it’s helpful to include a brief explanation of them.


Language, Please is a living resource that will be regularly updated. We’re working hard on an entry for this topic — please check back in soon.


In the context of immigration, assimilation typically refers to immigrants’ adoption of the majority group’s language and some of their cultural values. Historically in the US, it can have coded racist connotations, as it has often implied the absorption of dominant cultural norms. Terms such as integration and acculturation are possible alternatives, with more of an emphasis on a two-way process, allowing for the retention of native customs, language, and other cultural markers.

asylum seeker

An asylum seeker is an individual seeking asylum due to fear of persecution in their native country. Someone who has been granted asylum is called an asylee, though some international organizations such as the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees use the term “former refugee.”


An individual is granted US citizenship through different means, including birth and naturalization. Generally, natives or naturalized residents of US territories can be referred to as American citizens; American Samoa is the only unincorporated US territory that does not confer birthright citizenship. As with any such identifier, taking into account an individual’s preference wherever possible ensures language aligns with their lived experience. It may add vital context for audiences to mention in coverage the limits placed on citizenship in US territories and the colonialist history that contributes to why those limits exist.


Colonization is an invasion, displacement, and subjugation of a group of people, often the original or longstanding historical inhabitants of an area. The term colonialism refers to the ongoing processes of power and control by one group over another group or territory, and is inextricably linked to the exploitation of colonized people. There are many contemporary efforts to recognize the effects of colonization around the world, such as celebrating Indigenous Peoples’ Day rather than Columbus Day.

DACA recipient

A DACA recipient is an individual who has been granted protections under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. A person applies for DACA and, upon approval, “has DACA,” “has DACA status,” or is a “DACA recipient.” “DACAmented” is also a popular usage among some DACA recipients, though as not all recipients use the term, limiting it to those who self-identify in this way acknowledges that difference. Due to the potential legal ramifications of disclosing someone’s immigration status, it’s especially important to confirm with an individual that they are comfortable with the information being included in media coverage, and that its inclusion is necessary and relevant.

detention center

A detention center, or immigrant detention center, is a facility used to hold immigrants in custody. In the US, these are largely overseen by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). They are often identical to prisons in their form and processes; some migrant rights groups prefer to call such centers “immigrant prisons and jails.”

developed / developing countries (First World / Third World countries, Global North, Global South)

“Developing” or “developed countries” are vague terms used to classify countries via various measures, including income levels and mortality rates. “First World” and “Third World” are now seen by many groups as offensive. “Global North” and “Global South” refer primarily to economic conditions rather than geography. More precise phrasing, where possible, would be to specify countries and metrics, and include income levels. Whichever term is used, it’s helpful to explain to the audience how it’s defined.

Last updated 08/05/22

Migration is key to so many stories we tell about the world and its peoples, which makes it a challenging topic to cover in a nuanced way. Conflicts can involve the highest stakes, borders are continually shifting, and legal and cultural definitions are frequently at odds. Certain terms related to migration have also taken on specific cultural meanings in the US, and to use them could inadvertently appear to be endorsing a particular viewpoint. 

This section of Language, Please aims to help journalists understand key immigration-related terms and the ways their use continues to evolve. This guidance is intended for US newsrooms and focuses on US policy.

This resource was informed by questions and discussions from our own newsrooms. It is a living document that will expand over time. It is not meant to be comprehensive or the definitive arbiter of language “rules” but instead aims to give context and inform thoughtful decision-making. Have a suggestion for an update, change, or addition? Please get in touch.

How to use: Browse the whole section or search for the term you need guidance on; click into any term for in-depth context, additional resources, and related terms. 

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Language, Please is a living resource and will be updated regularly. Have a question, suggestion, or addition? We’d love to hear from you.

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