01. Immigration Law
What is Immigration Law?
Immigration law refers to the rules established by the federal government for determining who is allowed to enter the country, and for how long. It also governs the naturalization process for those who desire to become U.S. citizens. Finally, when foreign nationals enter without permission, overstay their visit, or otherwise lose their legal status, immigration law controls how the detention and removal proceedings are carried out.
The U.S. Constitution grants Congress the exclusive right to legislate in the area of immigration. Most of the relevant laws, including the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA), are found in Title 8 of the United States Code. State governments are prohibited from enacting immigration laws. Despite this, a handful of states recently passed laws requiring local police to investigate the immigration status of suspected illegal aliens, creating some controversy.
Three federal agencies are charged with administering and enforcing immigration laws. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) investigates those who break the law, and prosecutes offenders. U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) handles applications for legal immigration. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) is responsible for keeping the borders secure. All three agencies are part of the Department of Homeland Security.
Generally speaking, people from foreign countries obtain permission to come to the United States through a visa approval process. Visas are available for two purposes. Immigrant visas are for those who want to stay in this country and become employed here. These visas are limited by country-specific quotas. Non-immigrant visas are for tourists, students, and business people who are here temporarily.
Citizens of certain developed countries deemed politically and economically stable by the U.S. government are allowed to visit for up to 90 days without obtaining a visa. Known as the visa waiver program, this expedited system is primarily used by people coming here on vacation. It does not allow foreign citizens to work, go to school, or apply for permanent status. The visa waiver program is currently available to citizens of 37 countries.
Permanent Residency and Citizenship
Immigrating to the United States requires individuals to submit a number of detailed applications to the federal government. Further complicating matters, immigration regulations change often, making it difficult for anyone without formal training to stay current on the law. Even among attorneys, immigration is considered a specialized practice area not suited for general practitioners. Self-representation is not recommended.
With the help of an experienced attorney, those who qualify can successfully obtain permanent residency (a green card), and eventual citizenship. While the law provides a path to citizenship for workers and investors, the most common grounds for granting legal status is family-based immigration. This process begins when a permanent resident or U.S. citizen files a petition on behalf of a family member in a foreign country.
U.S. citizens can sponsor family members who qualify as "immediate relatives." These include spouses, parents of a citizen 21 years or older, unmarried children under age 21, and children adopted before turning 16. The government does not limit the number of immediate relative visas approved each year. This means there is no waiting period, other than the time required to process the visa petition.
By contrast, petitions filed by citizens or permanent residents on behalf of more distant relatives are subject to annual quotas. The amount of time these family members must wait to come to the United States will depend on their preference category. Unmarried children age 21 or older are given the most preference. Brothers and sisters of adult citizens are given the least. For those in the lower preference categories, it can take years to obtain a visa.
Immigration is a diverse area of the law, and attorneys tend to specialize in particular types of cases. For example, an immigration attorney may limit his or her practice to employment-based petitions, foreign adoptions, or deportation defense. Immigrants and their families should take it upon themselves to gain a preliminary understanding of the nature of their case, before going about the important task of finding an attorney.
Naturalization or Citizenship Law deals with the legal process of a person taking on citizenship in a country other than the one of his or her birth. The process of becoming a citizen of another county is called naturalization, while citizenship is technically the body of rights, privileges and duties a naturalized citizen obtains.
The Immigration and Nationality Act is the primary source of American naturalization and citizenship law. Generally speaking, a person can become a United States citizen in one of four ways:
1. By being born in the United States (or one of its territories);
2. By being born to parents who are US citizens;
3. By being naturalized (which usually involves certain residency requirements and passing a citizenship test); or
4. By being a minor and having one or more of your parents become naturalized citizens.
For more information about becoming a citizen, you may refer to the resources found below. Additionally, you can find an attorney in your area who can assist you with your naturalization and citizenship issues or answer any other questions you may have by clicking on the "Law Firms" tab found above on the menu bar.