Basic Immigration Laws

Federal immigration laws cover a number of issues regarding the rights and duties of foreign nationals in the United States: defining an individual's immigration status and immigration options, determining if a person is in the country illegally, and controlling whether or not an alien can be deported. Following is a discussion of the key federal law governing immigration -- the Immigration and Nationality Act -- and its supporting regulations.

The Immigration and Nationality Act (INA)

Since 1952, the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) has governed U.S. immigration law.  The INA is frequently amended, and is supported by federal regulations which are also in constant flux.

The INA and its related federal regulations cover:

  • Who is an immigrant and who is a citizen
  • Who can enter the country from abroad
  • Who must have a visa to enter the country
  • How visas are defined and administered
  • How immigrants are processed
  • Which immigrants can be removed (deported) from the country
  • What immigrants must do to maintain their legal status
  • How immigrants can become permanent residents or naturalized citizens
  • Who qualifies as a refugee or asylum recipient

Increasingly, immigration law also deals with issues of terrorism prevention and investigation.

Changes to the Law

The INA has been amended many times since it was enacted over 50 years ago, and some of these amendments have represented major changes to federal law.  Regulatory changes and government reorganizations also impact immigration procedures.  For example, the well-known Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) was placed in the Department of Homeland Security and its functions split between different agencies.  Most immigrants now deal with the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) bureau. 

Over the past few years, immigration law has become much more strict, with more stringent visa requirements and longer waits for administrative actions.  Fees and penalties have also been raised.  Recently, the government has started collecting biometric information from immigrants in order to better identify people in the system.

Challenging Immigration Decisions

Foreign nationals seeking to enter the United States to work, study, get married, or do business may need to apply for a visa. Individuals already enjoying permanent resident status may wish to start the naturalization process in order to become a U.S. citizen. Sometimes, the USCIS denies petitions for relief or takes other adverse action against these applicants. Fortunately, the INA and its associated regulations give many applicants the right to challenge those outcomes before an administrative tribunal rather than in a courtroom (although once all administrative options are exhausted, some cases can be brought before a court). If you or a loved one need legal help with such a challenge, contact an experienced immigration attorney to discuss your situation and protect your rights under the law.

Next Steps

Contact a qualified immigration attorney to help you get the best results possible.