Federal Immigration Agencies Overview

In order to understand the U.S. immigration system and process, it is important to understand the basic structure of the agencies charged with enforcing the U.S. immigration laws.

There are many federal agencies and courts that are involved with immigration in some way. The following agencies and courts represent those that an alien seeking admission is most likely to encounter.

U.S. Department of Homeland Security

The Homeland Security Act of 2002 abolished the former Immigration and Naturalization Service (“INS”) and the former U.S. Customs Service and combined the functions of these agencies within one department: the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (“DHS”). The DHS now performs the duties of these former agencies. These duties have been delegated to a number of agencies within the DHS. The agencies within the DHS that have the most contact with and impact on non-citizens are:

(1) U.S. Customs and Border Protection (“CBP”);

(2) U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (“ICE”); and

(3) U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (“CIS”)

U.S. Customs and Border Protection (“CBP”)

CBP is the largest uniformed law enforcement agency in the country. It is the agency responsible for protecting the borders of the U.S. and, therefore, controls access to the country. CBP is responsible for protecting the nation’s 325 ports of entry and enforcing hundreds of laws designed to protect citizens and commerce. Among the laws CBP must enforce are the immigration laws of the U.S. In carrying out its immigration enforcement duties, CBP can question, investigate, and detain arriving aliens at U.S. ports of entry.

The U.S. Border Patrol (“BP”) is part of CBP. Whereas CBP is charged with border enforcement at ports of entry, BP is responsible for patrolling the areas at and around international land borders. The primary mission of BP is “the detection and apprehension of illegal aliens and smugglers of aliens at or near the land border.” The BP focuses on enforcing immigration laws in areas near ports of entry, and has jurisdiction to investigate, arrest, and detain aliens within 99 miles of land borders. Some of BP’s major enforcement activities include maintaining traffic checkpoints along highways leading from border areas, conducting city patrol and transportation check, and anti-smuggling investigations.

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (“ICE”)

The major difference between ICE and CBP is that while CBP is responsible for enforcing immigration laws at and near the borders, ICE is responsible for enforcing immigration laws within the remaining areas of the U.S. In addition to investigating, arresting, and detaining illegal aliens, ICE is also responsible for the removal of aliens. ICE activities include anti-smuggling efforts, locating persons illegally in the U.S., enforcing the laws against the unauthorized employment of aliens, and battling money laundering. ICE attorneys are also responsible for representing the U.S. government in immigration prosecutions.

As you can see, ICE and CBP enforce many of the same immigration laws, yet each agency has enforcement duties that are exclusively its own.

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (“CIS”)

CIS is the agency within DHS that is responsible for the adjudication of applications for immigration benefits. For example, CIS determines whether applications for permanent residency and citizenship will be granted. Most applications for immigration benefits filed by persons already in the U.S. are filed with CIS. CIS then determines whether the applicant qualifies for the desired benefit, and in many instances, conducts an interview of the applicant at an office within the U.S.

Unlike CBP and ICE, CIS is not a law enforcement agency. Accordingly, CIS does not share many duties with CBP and ICE. However, CIS and CBP do perform many similar duties. For example, CIS adjudicates applications for immigrant waivers, while CBP adjudicates applications for nonimmigrant waivers. Similarly, while many applications for immigrant visas are filed with CIS, some applications for nonimmigrant visas are filed with CBP.

Even though CIS is not a law enforcement agency, it has the power to place individuals into proceedings before an Immigration Judge, as do CBP and ICE.

U.S. Department of Justice (“DOJ”)

Within the DOJ is the Executive Office for Immigration Review (“EOIR”). The two courts within the EOIR are:

(1) Immigration Court; and

(2) Board of Immigration Appeals

These courts are administrative courts. They are directed by the U.S. Attorney General.

Generally, when any agency within DHS determines that a non-citizen is in the U.S. illegally, or attempting to enter the U.S. illegally, that agency will issue a Notice to Appear to that non-citizen, which puts that person in removal proceedings. Removal proceedings take place before an Immigration Judge in Immigration Court. Decisions of the Immigration Court may then be appealed to the Board of Immigration Appeals.

U.S. Department of State (“DOS”)

There are many agencies within the DOS that are responsible for immigration issues. Perhaps the most commonly encountered agency by non-citizens is the Bureau of Consular Affairs, which adjudicates visa applications of aliens outside the U.S. Consular officers are located in most counties around the world, either at a U.S. Embassy or Consulate. Officers of the Bureau of Consular Affairs will review visa applications and determine if the individual applicant qualifies for a U.S. visa. If so, the consular officer will issue the individual a visa, allowing him/her to travel to the U.S. However, individuals with visas issued by consular officers abroad are still subject to inspection by CBP when they enter the U.S. CBP has the right to veto the issuance of a visa if it determines that the individual is inadmissible to the U.S.