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U.S. Immigration Laws – Structure & Agencies

Prior to 2002, immigration laws were primarily governed by Immigration & Naturalization Services (INS). Following the September 11th terrorist attacks, INS was restructured to the newly-created Department of Homeland Security (DHS), effective March 1, 2003. The immigration laws are primarily enforced by with U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS), U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) and U.S. Department of State (DOS).

DHS has three divisions, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (CIS), U.S. Immigration and Custom Enforcement (ICE), and U.S. Custom and Border Protection (CBP). U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (CIS) govern administration of immigration and citizenship benefits. On a practical level, CIS is most well-known for processing immigration forms and applications. U.S. Immigration and Custom Enforcement (ICE) serve an investigative role in enforcement of U.S. immigration laws. ICE oversees detention and removal, orders of supervision, administration of bond issuance and maintains immigration detention facilities. U.S. Custom and Border Protection (CBP) perform border protection duties. These are the officers you speak with when seeking entry into the U.S. at the airport. CPB enforces U.S. immigration and drug laws at U.S. borders.

The Department of Justice (DOJ) encompasses the Executive Office of Immigration Review (EOIR), which adjudicates immigration cases and administers U.S. immigration law. When you have a hearing in immigration court, you are dealing with EOIR. The Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA) conducts appellate review of decisions of immigration judges and Department of Homeland Security (DHS) district directors on issues of family-sponsored immigration and removal cases. BIA primarily conducts paper review of decisions and has few in-person hearings. Decisions of the BIA selected as precedential are binding for district directors and immigration judges, and are subject to the judicial review of federal courts.

U.S. Department of State (DOS) is responsible for the adjudication of visa applications of aliens outside the U.S., either at a U.S. Embassy or Consulate. Officers of the Bureau of Consular Affairs will review visa applications and determine if the individual applicant qualifies for a U.S. visa. If so, the consular officer will issue the individual a visa, allowing him/her to travel to the U.S. However, individuals with visas issued by consular officers abroad are still subject to inspection by CBP when they enter the U.S. CBP has the right to veto the issuance of a visa if it determines that the individual is inadmissible to the U.S.

The immigration laws are contained in the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA), a set of rules and instructions applicable to aliens and citizens. In summary, it covers the following basic five topics:

  1. Who can become a citizen, and who already is one?
  2. Who can immigrate, or become a permanent resident? What are the different ways a person can immigrate?
  3. Who can come to the United States temporarily on a non-immigrant visa (e.g., student, tourist)?
  4. Who can be removed from the United States? What are the grounds of deportation? What happens in a removal hearing?
  5. Who can be admitted to the U.S.? What are the grounds of inadmissibility? What happens at an expedited removal proceeding?

The Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) also covers other immigration laws subject matters. These include the rights and duties of aliens (work authorization, travel permission, etc.); the employer sanctions and anti-employment discrimination programs; unusual status like Family Unity and Temporary Protected Status; and immigration violations that are criminal offenses.