Immigration is one of the most complex areas of U.S. law. Eight U.S. federal agencies make decisions about immigration law and policy, which reflects this complexity. Each federal agency involved in immigration has its own set of rules, regulations, and procedures. Sometimes even the federal agencies themselves disagree about how a provision of immigration law should be interpreted and applied.
Making sense of the web of federal agencies that touch U.S. immigration law is fundamental to understanding immigration law, policy, and procedure. This post provides a brief overview of the most important federal immigration agency, the Department of Homeland Security, and its components. The following post will describe the roles of the Department of Justice, Department of State, Department of Labor, and the Department of Health and Human Services in the immigration law field.
Congress created the Department of Homeland Security (“DHS”) in 2002, and tasked DHS with protecting the United States from threats like terrorist attacks, natural disasters, and other emergencies. Congress also assigned DHS the responsibility of administering and enforcing the majority of U.S. immigration laws. Because U.S. immigration law and policy is so vast, DHS in turn created three subcomponents that have distinct responsibilities regarding immigration.
United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (“USCIS”) oversees lawful immigration to the United States by adjudicating applications for a huge number of immigration “benefits.” These benefits include family and employment-based petitions, DACA, asylum applications, applications to adjust status, applications for citizenship, and requests for work and travel authorization.
In addition to its headquarters in Washington, D.C., USCIS has local offices throughout the United States, service centers, specialized asylum offices, and application support centers. At USCIS headquarters and through its service centers, USCIS creates policy and procedure regarding any and all applications for immigration “benefits.” Understanding how USCIS evaluates applications for different types of status is thus vital to a strong immigration practice.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement (“ICE”) is the investigative and interior enforcement arm of DHS. Even though immigration laws are technically civil as opposed to criminal, ICE looks and functions like a criminal law enforcement agency.
ICE is responsible for enforcing laws relating to the border, customs, trade, and immigration, but ICE principally arrests and detains noncitizens who are subject to removal from the United States. ICE attorneys then prosecute noncitizens in removal proceedings before an Immigration Judge and the Executive Office for Immigration Review (see upcoming post). ICE also administers the Student Exchange and Visitor Program (“SEVP”), which monitors students and exchange visitors who have come to the United States with F, M, or J visas.
Customs and Border Protection (“CBP”) is another immigration law enforcement agency that is responsible for facilitating trade and travel. CBP officers inspect people and goods at ports of entry, which include airports, land ports and sea ports.
Most people have interacted with CBP when going through customs after arriving in the United States on an international flight. Even though many international travelers arrive in the United States with a valid visa, CBP officers ultimately make the decision as to whether the traveler will be admitted, and for how long.