Enforcement of Immigration Laws in the United States

While the laws governing immigration into the United States are federal laws, the enforcement of those laws may fall to federal or state agencies.

Federal Enforcement of U.S. Immigration Laws

At the federal level, American immigration laws are monitored and enforced by a number of agencies, including:

  • United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS): The USCIS took over the functions of the former federal Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) pursuant to the Homeland Security Act of 2002. USCIS oversees and approves petitions for immigration benefits for purposes of citizenship, lawful permanent residency, family- and employment-related immigration, inter-country adoptions, asylum and refugee immigration, and authorization for foreign students seeking education in the U.S.
  1. The National Visa Center: Upon approval of the immigration petition, the National Visa Center processes the documents and collects the appropriate fees for the U.S. embassies and consulates.
  2. The U.S. State Department: The State Department manages U.S. visa and passport policies and procedures.


State Enforcement of U.S. Immigration Laws


Although immigration is a federal issue, state and local law enforcement agencies have the authority to respond to perceived violations of federal immigration laws. State and local police may investigate, detain or arrest individuals who have violated federal immigration laws, and do not need authorization from a federal agency to do so.


Controversies have arisen since 2010, when Arizona passed laws making it a misdemeanor to be in the state without proper documentation. The law also required that police officers attempt to determine an individual’s immigration status during lawful contact of any kind. Most provisions of the Arizona law were held to unconstitutional pursuant to a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in 2012.


In 2011, Alabama passed its own immigration law, modeled on the Arizona law, but with even stricter requirements. Most provisions of that law have been ruled unconstitutional as well.


The Visa Waiver Program


Under the visa waiver program, certain screened foreign nationals may apply to visit the U.S. for 90 days or fewer for the purpose of tourism or business using a machine-readable passport, provided that the passport is valid for six months after the visit to the U.S.

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