By Eric Harvey, J.D. | Legally reviewed by Aviana Cooper, Esq. | Last reviewed December 16, 2022
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Immigration is the act of entering a country with the intent to permanently live and/or work there. United States immigration laws encompass a wide range of situations that involve a person from a foreign country coming to the U.S., whether for a temporary visit or to live here permanently.
The American immigration system is set up primarily to grant immigration status based on factors such as family reunification, in-demand work skills, and capital investment. The immigration system also covers refugees and asylum seekers. The system provides a "lottery" for immigration status to people who have less pressing immigration needs. The procedure for gaining legal immigrant status will depend upon, among various factors, which path you are eligible to pursue based on your employment, education, and family situation.
A Nation of Immigrants
Millions of foreign nationals from around the world have immigrated to the United States. Since between 1900 and 1914, as massive waves of immigrants moved into the United States at Ellis Island in New York, noncitizens and immigration have continued making the U.S. more of a cultural melting pot and contributed to its thriving economy. However, attitudes toward new immigrants have cycled between favorable and hostile for more than two centuries. Immigration laws have often reflected these attitudes.
The Naturalization Act of 1790 was the first attempt to naturalize people from outside the United States. The first significant federal legislation restricting immigration was the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act. Quotas and immigration acts of all types have followed. However, while Americans routinely acknowledge that the United States is a nation of immigrants, the system of laws that govern immigration can be downright confounding. These laws regulate every conceivable aspect of what happens when someone immigrates. For example, among many other things, these laws address who can visit, who can stay, and under what conditions someone can visit, and under what conditions someone can remain in the country.
Consider the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) of 1952. This is a collection of laws that does everything from setting forth qualifications for naturalization, to regulating foreign students, to managing temporary workers, and to authorizing humanitarian protections such as asylum and refugee admissions.
Over a decade later, the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 ended the quota system favoring European immigrants, which was in place under the INA of 1952. The INA of 1965, however, was signed to end the admissions policies under the prior INA of 1952, which was based on race and ethnicity. The admissions policy was changed to emphasize immigrants' skill sets and relationships with family members from the United States or already in the United States.
The Immigration Act of 1990 increased the limits the U.S. government placed on the total number of immigrants entering the country annually. For the period from 1992 to 1994, the cap for this annual limit was set at 700,000. After that, in fiscal year 1995, the limit was reduced to 675,000.
Today, the majority of the country's immigrants come from Asia and Latin America. More recently, under the Obama administration, the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program was put in place. It protects immigrants from deportation and allows them to get work permits. In 2017, the Trump administration terminated DACA. However, shortly thereafter, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the Trump administration termination of the program. It was renewed by the Biden administration. Today, DACA continues to provide protections and benefits for undocumented people that came to the United States as children.
Enforcement of Immigration Laws
The enforcement of immigration laws changed dramatically after the passage of the Homeland Security Act of 2002. This Act created the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) carries out the administrative functions involved in immigration. The U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) enforce the laws and protect the U.S. borders. As law enforcement agencies, ICE has more than 20,000 people working in and outside the United States and CBP has more than 60,000 employees.
Deportation, referred to as "removal" in legal terms, occurs when the federal government orders that a non-citizen be removed from the United States. This can happen for many reasons, but typically occurs after the immigrant violates immigration laws or more serious criminal laws. Deportation is proceeded by removal proceedings, which are ultimately overseen by the Department of Justice (DOJ). Under the DOJ, the Executive Office of Immigration Review (EOIR) handles issues related to deportation more directly. Under the oversight of the DOJ and the EOIR, Immigration Judges (IJs) and the Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA) handle removal proceedings. IJs and the BIA also hear deportation proceedings.
Navigating the Immigration System
FindLaw's Immigration Center has a wealth of information and resources on applying for U.S. citizenship, green cards and temporary visas. It also has information on dealing with immigration violations. You may also learn about the citizenship and naturalization process, permanent residency, temporary work visas, student visas, protection from deportation, and more.
Under U.S. immigration law, there are a variety of avenues by which a person can seek residency or citizenship in the United States. Examples of those are temporary protected status and employment-based immigration. However, there are many other options available to people trying to immigrate to the United States.
For a variety of reasons, foreign nationals may obtain temporary protected status (TPS). For the following reasons, a person may do so:
- Civil unrest in their country of origin that is posing a significant deadly threat to a person seeking safety in the United States
- Natural disasters, such as earthquakes, hurricanes, and epidemics
- Humanitarian crises and other extraordinary circumstances that pose deadly risks to people fleeing their country of origin
Under U.S. immigration law, EB-3 or employment-based immigration remains a possibility for many people who would like to pursue or are pursuing immigration to the United States.
Need More Help? Contact an Attorney Today
U.S. immigration law can be very confusing. Maneuvering through the maze of immigration regulations can be a significant challenge. A qualified immigration lawyer is often a crucial requirement for anything beyond the simplest and most straight-forward immigration law issues. An immigration lawyer should know the immigration laws inside and out, have experience in immigration courts, and can assist in navigating the federal immigration system.
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Meeting with a lawyer can help you understand your options and how to best protect your rights. Visit our attorney directory to find a lawyer near you who can help.
Contact a qualified immigration attorney to help you get the best results possible.