U.S. IMMIGRATION SYSTEM | AN OVERVIEW INTRODUCTION
U.S. Immigration Law essentially deals with two basic principles: 1) which foreign nationals can enter the United States; and 2) once entered, the allowable time and scope of their stay. Whereas U.S. citizens possess certain constitutionally-grounded rights, the situation for foreign nationals is much more tenuous in that such basic rights as residence, employment, and travel permission need to be affirmatively granted by the U.S. Government, and even once these rights have been granted, they can in many instances later be removed or abridged.
Basic Legal Framework
The foundation for our immigration laws dates back to 1952, with the issuance of the Immigration and Nationality Act. This particular era was marked by Cold War tensions and a general distrust of foreign nationals, and this underlying theme forms the backdrop to our current immigration system. Although the U.S. Congress has enacted major amendments in the ensuring years to our immigration laws, in many ways our immigration system remains out of sync with modern day realities. There is today a growing effort toward enacting Comprehensive Immigration Reform in an effort to enhance and streamline our system of immigration benefits, border security, and immigration enforcement, so as to better align our immigration system with the competitive demands of a globalized, interdependent world.
The leading U.S. Government Agency charged with the administration of our immigration laws is the Department of Homeland Security. Within this federal agency exist three primary bureaus having responsibility for administering our immigration laws: 1) U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) which makes decisions on affirmative requests for immigration status and benefits; 2) Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) which enforces our immigration laws, including instituting removal (e.g., deportation) action; 3) U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) which staffs the various ports of entry, thereby making decisions on which foreign nationals should be allowed admission into the United States.
In addition, there are a wide variety of other agencies involved in the immigration process, including the U.S. Department of State, which issues visas (e.g., admission documents) to foreign nationals; the U.S. Department of Labor, which ensures that the employment of foreign nationals does not negatively harm the domestic labor market; the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, which is involved in health-related issues in the immigration process; the Social Security Administration, which holds key responsibilities in confirming employment eligibility of foreign nationals; and the various state departments of health which administer an important J-1 waiver program aimed at facilitating the recruitment and retention of foreign physicians to medically underserved communities. While immigration has traditionally been regarded as a matter exclusively entrusted to the federal government, there has been a growing involvement, largely in immigration enforcement matters, by both state and local government entities (i.e. Departments of Motor Vehicles).
Current Immigration Trends
Despite the inherent complexities of the system, immigration unquestionably is an attainable objective for many foreign nationals. Each year, millions of foreign nationals come to this country under temporary visas for such diverse purposes as business trips, vacations, professional and non-professional employment, study, etc. Each year, upwards of 800,000 individuals obtain permanent resident status or, as it is more colloquially known, their “green cards.” The vast majority of foreign nationals obtain their “green cards” based upon family relationships (roughly 550,000/year) with the balance obtaining permanent residence based upon employment (max: 120,000/year), investment (max: 10,000), religious occupations (max: 10,000), refugees (max: 70,000, adjusted yearly), and various miscellaneous programs.
Three Basic Categories of Immigration
In a sense, there are three (3) basic types of immigration, and we hope our website proves useful in understanding their basic characteristics:
- Temporary Nonimmigrant Status. This is basically the situation in which a foreign national is admitted to the United States for a temporary period of time. The key characteristics here are: 1) a limited, finite duration of residence; and 2) a limited scope of lawful activities. A foreign national’s nonimmigrant visa status is notated by a letter-number combination appearing on his/her I-94 card, which is received at the time of admission to the United States.
- Permanent Resident (“Green Card”) Status. Here, a foreign national is granted an unlimited period of time in which to reside in the United States. Implicit in a grant of Permanent Residence is the right to work and the right to reenter the United States following trips abroad. While the day-to-day activities of a Permanent Resident quite closely resemble a U.S. citizen, it is important to note that immigration status of permanent resident can be lost or removed.
- Citizenship. Our immigration laws have various provisions related to citizenship, gained either through the naturalization process or through the acquisition at birth. Under the 14th amendment to the US Constitution, a U.S. citizen holds a wide variety of constitutionally guaranteed, fundamental, inalienable rights that cannot be removed or challenged absent extensive judicial review undertaken in conformity with various due process protection.
Our immigration laws are complex and constantly changing. On a philosophic level, immigration (specifically, the “melting pot” phenomena) has been a defining characteristic of the United States and there has been a growing movement over the past years to provide foreign nationals with a greater level of individual protections, although this general drift has arguably been halted and reversed in the aftermath of the 9/11 tragedy. On a more basic level, immigration ensures future economic growth in a globalized world through the creation of a multi-ethnic, diverse population that brings labor, skills, energy, and capital to our nation.
We invite you to explore our Website with the proviso that our immigration laws are and ought to be ever changing to address new national challenges and needs. So, the information herein presented is subject to change, but our site should give the reader a good snapshot orientation to the basics of immigration law and emerging policy. For specific questions, please consult with our attorneys.