U.S. immigration law refers to the body of substantive law made up from the federal statutes, regulatory guidance, and precedents set by case law that controls legal and illegal immigration into the United States. While the federal government is in control of the naturalization process, states can regulate immigration based on their local jurisdiction. After the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, American immigration laws also apply to terrorism aversion activities.
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UPDATED: Aug 12, 2021
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- Over 44 million immigrants live in the U.S., accounting for one-fifth of the global immigrant population and 13.7% of the U.S. population
- In 2019, 800,000 immigrants applied for naturalization
- Since September 11, 2001, immigration laws in the U.S. have become stricter, with higher restrictions, fees, and penalties
People from other countries who enter the U.S. and want to find work, start a business, marry their sweetheart, or attend university need to apply for a visa. The process takes time, is fraught with the risk of denial, and confuses people more often than not.
It is best to work with a citizenship lawyer or green card lawyer during the process. Immigration lawyers may cost additional fees but going it alone is not really an option. Read our guide for an immigration laws list, to learn more about federal immigration and state laws, and how to apply for a visa or green card.
To find an affordable immigration lawyer near you, enter your ZIP code above.
What are the current immigration laws in the U.S.?
The immigration laws in America have traveled a great distance over the centuries. The late 20th century saw law enforcement efforts move toward prosecuting employers who hire undocumented workers and assessing fines and penalties against corporate employers.
Since passing the Immigration and Nationality Act in 1952 and amending the law numerous times since then, Congress allows around 675,000 immigrant visas annually for permanent stay in the U.S. and sets no limit on the number of immigrants in the following categories:
- Parents, and
- Children under age 21.
But over the last 50 years, immigration laws have become stricter, with higher restrictions, fees, and penalties.
After September 11, 2001, the Homeland Security Act did away with the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS). The INS’s original responsibilities spread out among three agencies that are now organized under the Department of Homeland Security (DHS):
- Customs and Border Protection (CBP) — charged with barring entry to the U.S. from drugs, terrorists, weapons, specified restricted groups
- Citizen and Immigration Service (USCIS) — administers immigration laws and naturalization processes
- Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) — carries out civil/criminal laws re: customs, trade, immigration, and border control
Individual state laws will still routinely regulate immigrants with respect to accessibility to driver’s licenses, jobs, education, and state-allowed benefits, and Arizona, California, Florida, and Texas are among the states that recently passed legislation seeking to restrict immigrants within their borders based on state jurisdiction.
The U.S. Department of Justice under Attorney General Garland reversed two immigration laws in 2021. The original rulings adversely affected asylum-seekers coming to the U.S. The reversal of these rulings particularly impacts thousands of asylum-seekers from Central America and other countries facing gang and domestic violence.
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What is a green card, and why do I need one?
In simple terms, a green card is one way immigrants can obtain the government’s permission to remain in the U.S. permanently. A green card is the culmination of the lawful procedure that allows a foreign national to work and live anywhere in the U.S. A green card also qualifies the holder to apply for citizenship after “living continuously” in the U.S. for five years, or three years, if married.
Can you work in the U.S. without a green card? For people who do not have a green card, work in the U.S. is only possible if they have a document called a visa, which is issued under the Immigration and Nationality Act and allows them to work for companies here.
Does the U.S. conduct in-person interviews with green card applicants?
Absolutely. The interview will happen at the U.S. embassy or consulate closest to you. Interviews also sometimes take place at the USCIS’s field office. The interview will include questions about your application. The interviewer will want to know if any major changes happened in your life since you completed the application.
The interviewer will also ask personal questions. If married, the interview may include questions such as:
- When is your birthday?
- What side of the bed do you sleep on?
- When is your wedding anniversary?
- What brand of toothpaste does your husband use?
- How and where did you meet your husband?
Preparing ahead of time can make the interview process go smoother. When interviewing for a marriage green card, both spouses should prepare together. The last thing you want to do is contradict each other during the interview. Even though married couples contradict each other all the time in real life, the interviewer may become suspicious that the relationship is not legitimate and deny your green card application.
Hiring an immigration lawyer can provide valuable advice on the green card interview process. They know what the interviewers look for and how to avoid common interview pitfalls.
Is it true green card applicants must pass a physical examination?
Yes. The government designed the physical exam to identify green card applicants who may exhibit certain health problems that U.S. immigration law agencies want to keep out of the country.
Reasons for denying a green card based on the physical exam results include:
- Syphilis, tuberculosis, gonorrhea, leprosy, or other communicable diseases
- Substance abuse
- History of mental illness indicating violence or threats of violence
- Not being able to work
- Not having a vaccine for specific preventable diseases (such as measles, mumps, rubella, polio, tetanus, diphtheria, pertussis, or hepatitis)
For those who apply for the green card from within the U.S., the physician conducting the exam will be designated by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. This can vary for those applying outside of the U.S., and those physicians are often chosen from a panel sanctioned by the State Department.
The green card physical exam generally costs the green card applicant $200. The physician puts the results of the exam in a sealed envelope and gives the envelope to the person applying for the green card. The person must include the exam results, unopened, with the application.
If the physical exam is under the auspices of the State Department, then the physician may send the results directly to the consulate rather than giving them to the green card applicant.
Where does the public charge rule on green cards stand in 2021?
The public charge rule was originally developed in the 19th century to deny green cards to those who may become dependent on government benefits at any future point. In 2019, the public charge rule was broadly expanded to greatly reduce the number of immigrants who are legally eligible for green cards. Immigrants were also denied if they had prior use of government benefits.
The public charge rule is no longer in effect in 2021.
The DHS guidance stopped on March 9, 2021, after the Seventh Circuit vacated the public charge rule. The State Department guidance was indefinitely paused on July 29, 2020.
The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals denied attempts to bring the public charge rule back to life when the Attorneys General in several states, including Arizona, tried to appeal the vacated rule.
The Biden Administration dismissed the Justice Department’s pending appeals regarding the public charge rule. On March 15, 2021, DHS and USCIS issued a final rule rescinding the public charge rule as of March 9, 2021.
What types of visas does the U.S. have?
Saying that America has several visa types is an understatement. The total number of visas is 185 in all. The following are just a few of the more common types of U.S. visas:
- Type B: For Tourists/Business travelers
- Type H: Work visas come in several variations: H, L, O, P, and Q
- Type F-1 and M-1: Student visas
- Type J: Exchange visitor visas
- Type C and D: Transit/Ship crew visa
- Type R: Religious workers visa
- Type B-1: Domestic worker visa
- Type I: Journalist and media visa
- Type EB-1: Permanent visas for “priority workers” with “extraordinary capabilities”
There are separate visas for diplomats and other government officials for travel to the U.S. Government, and diplomatic visas come under the following categories: A-1, A-2, C-3, and G-1 through G-4 or NATO visas. Specific requirements apply to government visas that must be met in order to qualify for any said visa. For instance, travel to the U.S. must occur on behalf of the diplomat’s country and solely in an official capacity.
Some visas have educational or other requirements to qualify. For example, the H-1B visa requires an employee to have a four-year U.S. bachelor’s degree or higher, or the equivalent. This type of visa allows the employee to work in the U.S. for a company for up to six years (three initial years and then an extension for another three years).
The U.S. government charges fees for visas and the type of visa determines the amount of the fee. For example, the application fee for a type B visa for tourists and business visitors is $160. On the other hand, the application fee for a work visa (H, L, O, P, Q) is $190.
What is a visa waiver?
The Visa Waiver Program permits visitors from certain countries to travel to the U.S. as tourist visitors or for business reasons. Under the Visa Waiver Program (also referred to as VWP) visitors who qualify may remain in the U.S. for 90 days or less without needing a visa.
Approximately 38 countries participate in the Visa Waiver Program, a few of whom appear below:
- New Zealand
The Visa Waiver Program does not apply to all countries nor all tourists/business travelers from the countries listed under the Visa Waiver Program. Travelers under this program must submit to screening at the U.S. port of entry and submit to biometric identification, including fingerprinting, retinal scans, and facial recognition scans.
If you need help applying for a visa or otherwise need to hire an immigration attorney, enter your ZIP code below to find an affordable immigration law firm near you. Keep reading to learn more about the history of immigration law in the United States.
A Brief History of U.S. Immigration Law
A brief review of America’s immigration history and related legislation depicts a country transforming its legal groundwork on the immigration issue while it grapples with population growth and decline, economic stressors, war, and terrorism.
Following the Civil War (1861-1865), several states passed their own laws regulating immigration since the U.S. Constitution does not grant the federal government sole power over that subject. In 1875, in response to state-regulated immigration, Congress brought the immigration and naturalization power under federal jurisdiction. This substantive change meant that the federal government has sole authority to issue green cards and visas, carry out deportations, and grant citizenship.
Congress then passed the Chinese Exclusion Act and the Immigration Act of 1882. These contract labor laws banned certain laborers from immigrating to America. The Immigration Act of 1882 also imposed a tax of $.50 on every immigrant and forbid the immigration of “convicts, idiots, lunatics,” and anyone potentially a candidate for government support and benefits. The Chinese Exclusion Act was repealed in 1943.
In 1892, Ellis Island opened its doors to waves of immigrants and that facility became America’s busiest immigration portal. During this time, too, the law increased the number and types of individuals excluded from entry, such people as polygamists, depraved criminals, and those carrying contagious diseases.
Between 1900 and 1920, the U.S. saw an influx of 14.5 million immigrants. That immigration boom led to significant changes in immigration laws. In 1906, Congress passed the Basic Naturalization Act which sought to standardize the administration of immigration law across the country and formed the basis of immigration administration in America throughout the 20th century. It created the Federal Naturalization Service, which then became the INS in 1913.
In 1917, Congress passed the Immigration Act of 1917 requiring immigrants have the ability to read and write in the language of their home country as a qualification criterion. That requirement forced the Immigration Service to administer literacy tests to immigration applicants.
The Immigration Acts of 1921 and 1924 established America’s immigration quota system, restricting the number of immigrants coming from certain countries of origin. Immigration was further restricted during the Great Depression, with INS working together with the FBI to stop illegal immigration into the U.S. and prosecute individuals who violated immigration laws.
During World War II, INS developed programs on the homefront that supported the Second World War from the perspective of the country’s growing number of immigrants: fingerprinting aliens, arranging and running detention camps, naturalizing U.S. soldiers, managing background checks for security clearances of workers in the defense industry, and importing workers in the agricultural sector to help harvest crops when U.S. workers served in the war.