How the U.S. Immigration System Works

U.S. Constitution

The United States has a long history of offering new chances for immigrants. To this day, it remains a beacon of hope and success for people all over the world.

History of U.S. Immigration

Immigration to the United States began many thousands of years ago when people either walked across the Bering Strait in Alaska or settled on the Pacific coastlines. These people became the Native Americans who Europeans discovered when they began to colonize North and South America.

Most people date the "discovery" of the New World to 1492, when Christopher Columbus landed on an island in the Bahamas in the Caribbean Sea. Mass immigration from Europe began soon after.

The 19th century saw the greatest period of immigration to the U.S. as millions of immigrants arrived from Ireland and other European countries. Immigrants continued to come to the U.S. in huge numbers throughout the first half of the 20th century. Most famously, many entered the U.S. at Ellis Island near New York City. More than 12 million immigrants had been processed at Ellis Island when its inspection station closed in 1954.

After the mid-20th century, the demographics of hopeful immigrants changed. More people were coming from Asia than Europe. Unfortunately, Asian immigrants were turned away more often than Europeans because quotas had been established that made it practically impossible for Asian immigrants to come into the United States at the same rate as Europeans. Eventually the quota system ended and the U.S. began to adopt the more modern immigration system it has now.

The Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) was created in 1933. This organization created the first permanent resident cards, also known as green cards.

In the early 2000s immigration duties were absorbed by the Department of Homeland Security and then divided among new organizations.

Learn more about early American immigration policy or the Ellis Island years!

The U.S. Immigration System

The first thing that everyone should understand about the U.S. immigration system is that it is part of the U.S. government.

The U.S. federal government is divided into three parts, or branches. Congress is the part of the government that is responsible for making laws regarding immigration to the United States. The House of Representatives and the Senate make up the United States Congress.

As the head of the executive branch of the U.S., the president’s primary job is to enforce the laws passed by Congress. The White House is the president’s home and the seat of the executive branch.

The Supreme Court makes sure that U.S. laws are legal according to the Constitution, the governing document of the United States. (See Constitution of the United States: A History to read about this document.)

Congress gives the president the authority to conduct the daily operations of the immigration system. The president in turn delegates these duties to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), which then spreads these duties to many other organizations under its control.

The four most important bodies in the U.S. immigration system are the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), the Customs and Border Protection (CBP), Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), and the Department of State. The USCIS, CBP, and ICE are part of the Department of Homeland Security. The Department of State is an independent department.

USCIS

The United States Citizenship and Immigration Services handles immigration applications such as immigration petitions, Employment Authorization Documents (EADs), citizenship applications, and green card replacements and renewals.

The USCIS also collects the fees associated with immigration applications. It is one of the only government agencies that is almost entirely funded by customer fees.

Interviews for citizenship are conducted by USCIS immigration officers. Immigration records can also be retrieved through the USCIS.

CBP

The U.S. Customs and Border Protection a law-enforcement agency is responsible for enforcing United States regulations at the border. This includes regulating international trade and securing the border from terrorists, drug runners, and undocumented immigrants.

ICE

The U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency is similar to the CBP, but the ICE is more concerned with the investigation of potential weaknesses in the border system.

The ICE is also responsible for the removal of immigrants from the United States. Removal, also known as deportation, is the process by which the government decides that a person does not belong in the U.S. and removes him or her to the person’s home country.

State Department

The U.S. Department of State is primarily responsible for the management and direction of U.S. foreign policy and carries out diplomatic relations with foreign countries.

The State Department also issues immigration visas. Visas allow people from other countries to apply to enter the United States.

The State Department maintains embassies and consulates in most countries around the world. Potential immigrants will often have to communicate with officials at their local consulates during their immigration process.

What Are Visas?

A visa is a document that allows a person to apply to enter the United States. Most people think that a visa guarantees permission to enter the U.S., but it does not. With a visa, an applicant has the chance to come to a port of entry (this could be a seaport, airport, or a highway checkpoint) and apply for entry into the United States. This application can be rejected by an immigration officer.

There are many different kinds of visas. Each have different requirements and rules. Learn more about some of the more popular programs here:

During the application process a person is to submit evidence and fill out forms in an attempt to show the State Department or the USCIS that he or she should be allowed to enter the United States.

Visas are usually kept in passports and have an expiration date. It is important to pay attention to the expiration date—you would be breaking the law if you exceed it.

The Difference between Immigrant and Nonimmigrant Visas

Visas in the United States can be divided into two broad categories: immigrant and nonimmigrant visas. Immigrant visas are for a more or less permanent stay in the United States. Nonimmigrant visas are for temporary stays in the U.S. with a fixed end date.

Immigrant visas are not the same thing as green cards. Immigrant visas allow people to enter the United States. Once they are in the U.S., they will carry a green card as proof of their right to live in the country.

Nonimmigrant visas allow people to stay in the United States for a predetermined period of time for a particular purpose.

It is not particularly easy for a person to switch from nonimmigrant status to immigrant status. The U.S. government typically requires that applicants for nonimmigrant visas show proof that they intend to return to their home countries after their trip. People who initially come to the U.S. with nonimmigrant status generally must leave the U.S. before applying for an immigrant visa.

The exception is called a dual-intent visa, which allows a person to enter the U.S. on a temporary basis but also gives him or her the option to switch to full immigrant status without leaving the country. There are not many dual-intent visas available.

The Green Card

The green card is one of the most prominent symbols of American immigration, so much so that many people use the phrase “getting a green card” to mean gaining permanent residency. (Even people in the European Union have started to call their permanent resident card a “blue card” in a nod to the original.)

The green card came into existence in the middle of the 20th century as a way to keep track of permanent residents in the United States. It is technically known as a permanent residency card or an alien registration card. It serves the following purposes:

  • It is documentary proof of an immigrant’s right to live in the U.S. for as long as he or she so chooses.
  • It is proof that an immigrant has the right to work in the United States. A green card is necessary for noncitizens to get a job in the United States.
  • It acts as an identification document for immigrants when they need to interact with the government for benefits or regulation (such as getting a driver’s license).
  • A green card is also a step toward gaining U.S. citizenship.

There are a limited number of green cards issued in a year. Backlogs exist for some immigration programs that can stretch back 20 years for some countries. These wait times are called processing times.

Citizenship

Citizens are full members of the society of the United States. For many people, gaining citizenship is seen as the final step in the immigration process—the last step in becoming an American.

The U.S. Constitution explicitly states that a person born on U.S. soil is automatically a citizen. These native-born citizens’ birth certificates act as their citizenship certificates. The children of U.S. citizens are also eligible to become citizens of the United States even if they are born abroad.

Another way to become a citizen of the United States is to go through the naturalization process. This involves gaining a green card and then meeting the residency requirements. You must have a working knowledge of the English language and know some basic facts about the United States in order to become naturalized.

The last step in the process is taking the citizenship oath. This is a short statement, said publically, that renounces allegiance to other nations and that establishes that the new citizen is loyal to the United States.

Some people can choose to become dual citizens. Each country has its own rules about dual citizenship. The U.S. does not always allow a person to claim dual citizenship, especially if the U.S. is not on good diplomatic terms with the other country.

Immigration Reform of 2013 and On

During the 2012 presidential election campaign, immigration reform was a very popular topic.

There are about 12 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S.1 Most legislators agree that there should be as close to zero undocumented immigrants in the U.S. as possible, but they disagree on how to handle the situation. Conservative lawmakers want to increase border security to prevent the entry of undocumented immigrants. Liberal lawmakers want to provide undocumented immigrants with better opportunities to become documented.

Change is coming to the U.S. immigration system, but its foundation is stable. Stability is one of the best attributes of the United States. If there is immigration reform, it will not alter the character of the U.S. government or its bureaucratic systems to unrecognizable extent. The United States will remain a beacon of hope for immigrants everywhere.