What is Immigration Law?
Immigration law refers to the rules established by the federal government for determining who is allowed to enter the country, and for how long. It also governs the naturalization process for those who desire to become U.S. citizens. Finally, when foreign nationals enter without permission, overstay their visit, or otherwise lose their legal status, immigration law controls how the detention and removal proceedings are carried out.
The U.S. Constitution grants Congress the exclusive right to legislate in the area of immigration. Most of the relevant laws, including the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA), are found in Title 8 of the United States Code. State governments are prohibited from enacting immigration laws. Despite this, a handful of states recently passed laws requiring local police to investigate the immigration status of suspected illegal aliens, creating some controversy.
Three federal agencies are charged with administering and enforcing immigration laws. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) investigates those who break the law, and prosecutes offenders. U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) handles applications for legal immigration. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) is responsible for keeping the borders secure. All three agencies are part of the Department of Homeland Security.
Generally speaking, people from foreign countries obtain permission to come to the United States through a visa approval process. Visas are available for two purposes. Immigrant visas are for those who want to stay in this country and become employed here. These visas are limited by country-specific quotas. Non-immigrant visas are for tourists, students, and business people who are here temporarily.
Citizens of certain developed countries deemed politically and economically stable by the U.S. government are allowed to visit for up to 90 days without obtaining a visa. Known as the visa waiver program, this expedited system is primarily used by people coming here on vacation. It does not allow foreign citizens to work, go to school, or apply for permanent status. The visa waiver program is currently available to citizens of 37 countries.
Permanent Residency and Citizenship
Immigrating to the United States requires individuals to submit a number of detailed applications to the federal government. Further complicating matters, immigration regulations change often, making it difficult for anyone without formal training to stay current on the law. Even among attorneys, immigration is considered a specialized practice area not suited for general practitioners. Self-representation is not recommended.
With the help of an experienced attorney, those who qualify can successfully obtain permanent residency (a green card), and eventual citizenship. While the law provides a path to citizenship for workers and investors, the most common grounds for granting legal status is family-based immigration. This process begins when a permanent resident or U.S. citizen files a petition on behalf of a family member in a foreign country.
U.S. citizens can sponsor family members who qualify as “immediate relatives.” These include spouses, parents of a citizen 21 years or older, unmarried children under age 21, and children adopted before turning 16. The government does not limit the number of immediate relative visas approved each year. This means there is no waiting period, other than the time required to process the visa petition.
By contrast, petitions filed by citizens or permanent residents on behalf of more distant relatives are subject to annual quotas. The amount of time these family members must wait to come to the United States will depend on their preference category. Unmarried children age 21 or older are given the most preference. Brothers and sisters of adult citizens are given the least. For those in the lower preference categories, it can take years to obtain a visa.
Immigration is a diverse area of the law, and attorneys tend to specialize in particular types of cases. For example, an immigration attorney may limit his or her practice to employment-based petitions, foreign adoptions, or deportation defense. Immigrants and their families should take it upon themselves to gain a preliminary understanding of the nature of their case, before going about the important task of finding an attorney.
Know Your Rights!
- Important Factors Affecting Immigration
U.S. immigration law is very complex, and can be very confusing. In order to understand the process, you need to understand the factors related to the law and policies of immigration.
- Understanding American Extradition Laws
Extradition refers to the transfer of an accused criminal by one state or nation to another.
Articles on HG.org Related to Immigration Law
- How Do I Help My Spouse in Another Country Become a Legal Permanent Resident?The United States provides a special visa for a person who is engaged to a United States citizen to come to the United States to get married. However, the process works a little differently when the spouses marry abroad.
- What Happens When a Person is Charged with Illegal Reentry?Returning to the United States after being deported or removed is a violation of federal law. Alleged offenders could be sentenced to prison before being returned to their home countries—where they could face additional consequences as well.
- L-1 Visa Denial: Three Reasons to Appeal in Federal District CourtWhen an L-1 Visa is denied by USCIS, you may have the option of skipping an administrative appeal to the AAO, and file a petition for review with a Federal District Court under the Administrative Procedure Act.
- What Factors Affect Prosecutorial Discretion in My Immigration Case?Prosecutorial discretion may be exercised in certain immigration cases to permit individuals to remain in the country. On November 20, 2014, Jeh Charles Johnson released a memorandum entitled “Policies for the Apprehension, Detention and Removal of Undocumented Immigrants.”
- What Are the Requirements for Adjustment of Status?The Immigration and Nationality Act allows individuals to change their immigration status while they are in the United States. They may have begun as a nonimmigrant or a temporary alien but now wish to be classified as a permanent immigrant.
- What Is the Known Employer Program?The Known Employer program is a pilot program that is meant to help make travel between the United States and Canada more efficient for business travelers. At the time of publication, this program is only at the consideration level and has not yet been implemented.
- Immigration Consequences of a DUIWhile many individuals are aware of the serious consequences of receiving a DUI, these consequences are even graver for non-citizens. In addition to the same consequences of possible jail time, fines and a loss of driving privileges, a non-citizen’s conviction of a DUI may result in a finding that he or she is inadmissible or is removable.
- The H-1B VisaThe H-1B is a nonimmigrant work visa for a person who will be employed temporarily in a specialty occupation or as a distinguished fashion model.
- The E VisaThe E visa is a non-immigrant or temporary visa. There are 2 main categories of E visas.
- H1-B and Labor Certification Matters: DocumentationWhat employers must know with regards to keeping documentation in H1-B and Labor Certification matters.
- All Immigration Law Articles
Articles written by attorneys and experts worldwide discussing legal aspects related to Immigration including: extradition, green cards, naturalization and citizenship, visas, work permits and visas.
Immigration Law - US
- 1990 Immigration and Nationality Act
This legislation introduced the Diversity Visa Lottery Program. A short summary of the law and related links are available on this web page.
- ABA - Commission on Immigration
The Commission on Immigration is dedicated to helping immigrants receive fair treatment in the justice system, regardless of their legal status. This page provides related news and information.
- Immigration and Naturalization Law - Overview
The Legal Information Institute at Cornell University presents this discussion of immigration law. The article describes the evolution of the law from colonial times through the post-9/11 era.
- National Immigration Law Center
This website contains information and advice for low-income immigrants and their families. Visit the site’s multimedia page for audio clips and videos about immigration.
- The Immigration and Nationality Act (INA)
Passed in 1952, the INA continues to represent the foundation for immigration law in the United States. This online version of the Act is published by the Department of Labor.
- The White House - Immigration Policy
Immigration reform legislation is currently being debated in the Congress. This website describes the Administration’s views on the reform bill and other immigration matters.
- United States Immigration - Wikipedia
This comprehensive article discusses issues ranging from the environmental impacts of immigration, to immigration references in contemporary pop culture.
- US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS)
USCIS is the federal agency in charge of processing applications for legal status. Their website provides a great deal of useful content for anyone looking to file an application for immigration benefits.
- US Department of Labor - Immigration Regulations
Immigration and employment law often intersect. This page contains links to opinions issued by administrative law judges in labor cases that raise immigration issues.
- US Immigration Forms
USCIS provides immigration forms to the public free of charge. Forms can be ordered by mail, phone, or downloaded in PDF format from this web page. Filing fee information is also provided.