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INS – Immigration and Naturalization Service

January 25th, 2011 by Eleanor Gaskin

The United States Immigration and Naturalization Service, also referred to as the INS, was a federal organization charged with the maintenance and enforcement of regulations applying to non-U.S. citizens entering the United States. INS and its predecessor organizations were involved in activities including detaining and/or deporting individuals who had entered the country illegally and adjudicating petitions for immigration and naturalization, as well as patrolling the borders of the United States. The origins of the INS stretch back to the end of the U.S. Civil War.



After a number of states had begun to enact their own immigration laws, the federal government recognized the need for a uniform set of immigration rules applied across the country. The adoption of this federal responsibility was followed by an immigration law passed by U.S. Congress in 1882 that gave the office of the Secretary of the Treasury the authority to monitor immigration and naturalization.

This authority was then transferred to the newly established Office of the Superintendent of Immigration with the passage of the Immigration Act in 1891. Under the Superintendent of Immigration, inspectors were stationed at U.S. ports and began to collect tax from immigrants. Ultimately, the responsibility for immigration in the United States would pass from the superintendent’s office through a number of other government agencies to become what was eventually known as the INS.

A number of unforeseen difficulties arose in administering the process of immigration and naturalization, and the focal point of these issues was Ellis Island. The island, located in New York harbor, had become the main entry point for immigrants to the United States. Unfortunately, by 1982 it had also been the center of a number of corruption and brutality scandals, which led President Theodore Roosevelt to appoint an attorney to resolve its difficulties.

By 1903, Congress had transferred responsibility for the Bureau of Immigration to the recently created Department of Commerce and Labor, reasoning that the primary concerns of immigration — protecting American workers and wages — fell under its jurisdiction. Congress further clarified the function of the bureau in the Immigration Act of 1924, which limited the number of immigrants that could be admitted into the U.S., assigning a quota to each nationality and issuing a limited number of visas on an annual basis. Entry was only permitted for immigrants in possession of valid visas.

The Bureau of Immigration, which later became INS, was transferred two more times before being disbanded in 2003. First it moved from the Department of Labor to the Department of Justice in 1940, a move ordered by President Franklin Roosevelt, and then INS was transferred from the Department of Justice to the Department of Homeland Security.

In its final incarnation, INS was headed by a commissioner who was appointed by the U.S. President. The commissioner worked with external agencies, including the United Nations, the U.S. Department of State, and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, and oversaw four interior divisions responsible for immigration and naturalization services. These divisions performed the duties of immigration enforcement, the operation of INS field offices within the U.S. and abroad, and the managerial functions of the agency.

The INS was dissolved in 2003, one year after it became part of the Department of Homeland Security. Its functions are now performed by other departments within the Department of Homeland Security, including U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcements (ICE), and U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP).

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