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Who Does What in US Immigration
By Megan Davy, Deborah W. Meyers, and Jeanne Batalova
Migration Policy Institute
The United States has a long history of regulating and managing immigration,
dating back to the 1860s. The US Congress — the legislative branch of the federal
government of the United States — develops and passes legislation, which the
president signs into law, and federal agencies (executive branch) implement legislation.
The primary immigration law today is the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952 (the INA). Most immigration-related legislation since then has amended various sections of the INA.
Among the most significant pieces of immigration-related legislation over the last two decades are the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 (IRCA), the Immigration Act of 1990, the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996 (IIRIRA), and the Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act of 2001 (USA-Patriot Act).
Immigration legislation has also been embedded in other acts and bills. The REAL ID Act, which was passed as part of an emergency supplemental defense appropriation bill in 2005, includes provisions that bar undocumented immigrants from obtaining federally accepted drivers' licenses.
Over the last few years, there have been significant organizational changes in the structure of the agencies that oversee immigrant-related functions in the United States. The most substantial reorganization came as the result of the Homeland Security Act signed by President George W. Bush in November 2002.
According to this legislation, most of the policy and implementation functions of the former Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), which was abolished in March 2003, landed within one of three bureaus of the newly created Department of Homeland Security (DHS). The act also reassigned some responsibilities for visa policy and procedures from the Department of State (DOS), which previously had de facto jurisdiction over the entire visa process.
Nevertheless, as outlined below, a variety of other agencies have immigration-related functions, and some have immigrant integration-related responsibilities even though the United States has no formal integration policy or a dedicated agency for integration. Currently, no single agency or bureau develops immigration policy, coordinates the work, and assesses the effectiveness of various federal agencies in performing their immigration functions.
The diagram below depicts federal agencies that are responsible for implementing, supporting, and enforcing the immigration and integration laws made by the legislative branch.
Note: although these agencies have other functions as well, this Spotlight focuses only on those that relate to immigrants.
Click on the name of the agency to read more about its immigration/integration components:
Department of Homeland Security (DHS)
Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). USCIS
is responsible for providing immigration-related services such as processing
immigrant and nonimmigrant benefits; adjudicating refugee, asylee, and naturalization
petitions; and granting or denying work authorization.
- US Customs and Border Protection (CBP). CBP is
charged with securing US borders at and between ports of entry and facilitating
legitimate trade and travel. It includes Border Patrol agents, as well as
inspectors enforcing immigration, customs, and agriculture laws.
- US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). ICE
handles the interior investigative and enforcement responsibilities of immigration
and customs, including detention and deportation. ICE focuses on national security,
financial, and smuggling violations to target the support behind terrorist
and criminal activities.
- US-VISIT. This is a stand-alone
program office responsible for implementing the program that uses biometric
indicators to track the entry and exit of nonimmigrant visa holders at US air,
land, and sea ports of entry.
- Office of Immigration Statistics (OIS). OIS
is responsible for developing, analyzing, and disseminating immigration-related
statistical information, including the annual Yearbook of Immigration Statistics.
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Department of State (DOS)
- Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration (PRM). PRM
is responsible for formulating policies on population, refugees, and migration,
as well as administrating US refugee assistance and admission programs.
- Bureau of Consular Affairs (CA): CA
interprets visa laws and regulations and serves as a liaison between the
Department of State and overseas embassies and consulates on visa matters.
Oversight of visa policy now rests within DHS. Consular officials issue visas
and passports and provide services to US citizens abroad.
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Department of Justice (DOJ)
- Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR). EOIR
is responsible for adjudicating immigration cases and for the interpretation
and administration of immigration law. Its components include:
of Immigration Appeals (BIA). BIA is the highest
administrative body for interpreting and applying immigration laws. It
has nationwide jurisdiction and is responsible for hearing appeals of
decisions rendered by immigration judges or DHS district directors.
- Office of the Chief Immigration Judge (OCIJ). This
office is responsible for conducting formal court proceedings related to immigration
cases. Their decisions are final unless sent to BIA.
- Office of the Chief Administrative Hearing Officer (OCAHO). OCAHO
oversees the administrative law judges who adjudicate employer sanctions, document
fraud, and IRCA-related discrimination cases.
- Office of Immigration Litigation (OIL). This
office holds jurisdiction over all civil immigration litigation and is responsible
for coordinating immigration matters before the federal district courts and
circuit court of appeals.
- Office of Special Counsel for Unfair Immigration-Related Employment Practices
(OSC). OSC investigates and prosecutes employment discrimination
based on citizenship status, national origin, document abuse, or retaliation.
It also engages in outreach and education regarding employer sanctions' antidiscrimination
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Department of Labor (DOL)
- Bureau of International Labor Affairs (ILAB). ILAB
carries out DOL's international responsibilities by conducting research
on economic, trade, immigration, and labor policies.
- Employment Standards Administration (ESA). ESA's
Wage and Hour Division ensures compliance with minimum wage, overtime, and
child protection laws; the Migrant and Seasonal Agricultural Worker Protection
Act; and the protections of temporary worker programs. It also conducts inspections
of I-9 forms.
- Employment and Training Administration (ETA). Prior to
an employer petitioning USCIS for a foreign-born worker, ETA's Office of
Foreign Labor Certification must first certify that requirements for that visa
classification have been met, such as attempted recruitment of US workers and
payment of specified wage levels.
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Department of Education (ED)
Office of English Language Acquisition, Language Enhancement,
and Academic Achievement for Limited English Proficient Students (OELA). OELA
ensures that limited-English proficient children, including immigrants,
attain English proficiency and meet the same standards as all other students.
Office of Migrant Education. This office administers
grant programs that provide academic and other services to the children
of migrant workers whose parents work in the agricultural, fishing, and
Office of Vocational and Adult Education (OVAE). OVAE
supports national research, evaluation, demonstration, technical assistance,
and capacity building activities. Included in its program are adult literacy
and the Center for Adult English Language Acquisition.
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Department of Health and Human Services (HHS)
Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR). ORR provides
funds to states, public and private entities, and nonprofit voluntary
agencies to assist refugees and asylees in resettling in the United States
and attaining self-sufficiency. The office also recently was tasked
with overseeing the care of unaccompanied minors.
Migrant Head Start
Program. The migrant component
of this national program modifies delivery to meet the unique needs of
migrant farm-worker families. The program provides services to low-income,
preschool-age children and their families. Its goals
are related to education, health, parental involvement, and social services.
Migrant Health Program. This program under the Health
Resources and Services Administration provides grants to community nonprofit
organizations for culturally and linguistically appropriate primary and
preventive medical services for migrant and seasonal farm workers and their
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