What Is Immigration Law?

In philosophical and political terms, immigration law is a reflection of the United States’ ever changing world views.  At times in its history, the U.S. has attempted to isolate itself from international developments, and its immigration policies and laws reflected this restrictive approach.  At other times, its world view has been expansive and liberal, with its laws governing immigration mirroring those perspectives.

Practically speaking, immigration law is a composite of the statutes, regulations, court cases,  and agency procedures governing the entry of aliens into the U.S., the documentation needed for their temporary stays and permanent residence, their treatment while in the U.S. and in its workplaces, naturalization requirements for a citizenship status, plus sanctions and penalties on employers, aliens and others for violation of the laws’ various provisions.

 What Is the Primary U.S. Statute
Governing General Immigration Matters?

Following World War I, Congress enacted the Immigration Act, which was Congress’ first attempt at formulating a comprehensive immigration policy.  This statute remained substantially unchanged until 1952.  In that year, the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) was passed, and it established the basic structure for the United States’ current system of immigration laws.  The INA established a quota system for national origin and for race, preferences within the quotas for special skills, detailed grounds for exclusion and deportation, procedures and bases for naturalization, as well as relief from deportation and exclusions on political grounds.

 The INA has since been modified several times, with major amendments being made by Congress in 1986, 1990, 1996, and 2001. These amendments have had a major impact on the role of U.S. employers in relation to matters involving immigration.

 Which U.S. Agencies Regulate Immigration?

Several agencies of the U.S. government are involved in immigration matters: the Department of Homeland Security (which includes the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services and the Immigration Customs and Enforcement agency), the Department of Justice, the Department of State (including embassies and consulates), and the Department of Labor.

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is the most influentual and powerful agency regarding all matters having to do with immigration.   DHS  not only sets national policies and nationwide procedures, but also processes millions of visa petitions and applications each year.  DHS is the parent agency of USCIS, which is responsible for the “retail” aspect of immigration, processing the various petitions and applications.  ICE also falls under the control of DHS.  ICE is responsible for investigations of illegal immigration practices and institutes the necessary steps to ensure compliance with the law’s provisions.

The INA also bestows many responsibilities for immigration matters upon the U.S. Attorney General, who heads the Department of Justice.  The attorney general’s office, in turn, is in charge of administering the hundreds of immigration courts in the United States, which adjudicates immigration related cases.  The Attorney General is vested with important authorities such as the granting or denying of asylum claims, and defending the immigrations policies and procedures of the U.S. government if they were challenged in court.

The State Department is involved in immigration matters through its consulates, visa offices, and passport offices.  The consulates handle all applications for immigrant and nonimmigrant visas for persons outside the United States.  The visa offices provide training, guidance and supervision to consular officers by promulgating regulations, establishing standardized procedures and policies, providing advisory opinions and legal interpretations, and conducting conferences and workshops.   The passport offices handle the issuance of about five million passports per year to U.S. citizens for travel abroad.  The State Department administers the J-1 exchange visitor and F-1 student visa programs, setting guidelines for sponsors and participants and regulating program sponsors’ approval and compliance.

The involvement of the U.S. Department of Labor in immigration matters stems from its Employment Training Administration (ETA), which handles labor certification applications, and from its Wage and Hour Division, which handles enforcement of labor related regulations. 

The ETA employs regional “certifying officers” who are responsible for receiving and approving applications for (1) labor certifications in immigrant cases, (2) labor certifications in nonimmigrant (H-2A and H-2B) cases, (3) labor condition applications in “specialty occupations” (H-1B) cases, (4) H-1C Nurses in Disadvantaged Areas (5) employer attestations for certain off-campus work of F-1 visa students, and (6) employer attestations in crew member/longshore cases. 

The Wage and Hour Division (1) receives and investigates complaints of violations or fraud in labor condition and attestation matters, (2) assists the ICE in detecting employers’ failure to check employees’ work authorization and employers’ hiring of unauthorized aliens, and (3) investigates and punishes certain types of “document fraud.”

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