The immigration process within the United States is a complex process. There are multiple federal agencies that play a role in enacting and enforcing immigration policies. Whether you are seeking to become a lawful permanent resident or US citizen, or whether you are sponsoring family members or employees to come to the United States, it is important to understand what agencies you may be interacting with and how the rules are set for the immigration process. An experienced DC immigration attorney who handles immigration cases can provide assistance in interfacing with all relevant agencies, but knowing what to expect is important so you can make informed choices.
The US government agencies involved in the immigration process include the Department of State, Immigration, and Customs Enforcement, United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) and the Department of Homeland Security.
The US Department of State
The US Department of State has the primary responsibility of issuing United States visas, including both immigrant and non-immigrant visas. When a foreign national wishes to visit the country temporarily or to begin the process of moving to the country permanently, a visa is typically required. The US Department of State is instrumental in determining who can obtain a visa, and is the best source of information about available visas.
Some of the different tasks of the US State Department include:
- The release of the monthly visa bulletin summarizing the availability of immigrant numbers over the course of the calendar month.
- Running the Diversity Visa Lottery (DV), which randomly selects eligible individuals from among six different geographic regions.
- Issuing immigrant and non-immigrant visas.
It is important to realize that a visa is a permission to enter the United States, but it is not necessarily a guarantee you will be permitted to enter. The Department of State administers the issuance of visas, but customs officials at the border determine who will actually be permitted to enter the country and who will be denied entry.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE)
ICE was created in 2003 when Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) merged with the former US Customs Service. ICE has an investigatory role and is the enforcer of immigration laws within the United States. Some of the different tasks done by ICE include:
- Identifying removable undocumented aliens.
- Detaining undocumented aliens when necessary.
- Removal of undocumented aliens from the United States.
ICE has prioritized the apprehension and removal of convicted criminals and fugitives who pose a threat to national security, as well as the removal of people who recently entered the United States without proper permissions.
United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS)
USCIS oversees the process of lawful entry into the United States. Family members and employers who are sponsoring foreign nationals for immigration will submit applications and documentation to USCIS. Individuals who are immigrating will also be dealing with USCIS officials. For example, it is USCIS who conducts a naturalization interview, who administers English and civics tests to would-be citizens, and who conducts green card interviews.
USCIS not only manages all technical steps in the immigration process but also manages the e-verify system that allows employers to determine whether their workers are documented and eligible to hold employment positions within the United States. Some of the different tasks of USCIS include:
- Conducting naturalization ceremonies
- Conducting background checks of visa applicants
- Collecting biometric information from visa applicants
- Facilitating the process of foreign adoptions
- Checking employment eligibility of workers
- Processing refugee applications and granting asylum
These are just a few of the many tasks USCIS does as part of its role within the US immigration system. USCIS is the federal agency that potential immigrants and immigration attorneys generally deal with most frequently.
The Department of Homeland Security
Many of the federal agencies that facilitate US immigration are part of the Department of Homeland Security including:
- United States Citizenship and Immigration Services
- US Customs and Border Protection
- US Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
DHS also has a Citizenship and Immigration Services Ombudsman and plays an important role in protecting the United States from foreign and domestic threats.
Getting Help with the Immigration Process
The immigration process is incredibly complex, with so many different agencies working together and independently to help oversee the steps involved in visiting or immigrating to the United States. If you wish to immigrate yourself or to assist someone else with the immigration process, you should consult with an experienced immigration lawyer who understands the steps involved and who can interface with federal agencies on your behalf.