More than one U.S. government agency handles the various administrative and enforcement tasks to do with U.S. immigration. Whether you are an employer seeking to hire foreign workers, a foreign national desiring a visa or green card (U.S. lawful permanent residence) or facing arrest, or a U.S. citizen or resident planning to help family members immigrate, you may need to deal with not just one, but possibly several of these agencies in order to obtain what you want. Here are the main ones you should become familiar with:
- Department of Homeland Security (DHS). This agency comprises U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS, formerly called INS); Customs and Border Protection (CBP); and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Each of these is separately described below. The DHS website is www.dhs.gov.
- U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS, formerly called INS). This is often the first step in an immigration application process, because the U.S.-based family member or company must in many cases file a visa petition with USCIS in order to start the process of getting the immigrant a green card or certain types of nonimmigrant visas. USCIS has various types of offices that handle immigration applications, including service centers and lockboxes (large processing facilities that serve a wide region by mail), district offices (which interact with the public by providing forms and information and conducting in-person interviews), suboffices (similar to district offices, but smaller and with more limited services), Application Support Centers (where people go to have fingerprints taken and in some cases pick up forms or turn in applications), and asylum offices (where interviews on applications for political asylum are held). The website for this agency is www.uscis.gov.
- Customs and Border Protection (CBP). This agency is responsible for patrolling the U.S. borders and meeting people requesting entry. CBP’s role includes checking your paperwork when you arrive with your visa and doing a last check to make sure that everthing is in order and that you did not obtain or create the visa through fraud. Its website is www.cbp.gov.
- Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). This agency serves as DHS’s main investigative arm, conducting raids, checking prisons for detainees who should be deported (removed), arresting undocumented or deportable foreign nationals, managing removals, and so on. Its website is www.ice.gov.
- The U.S. Department of State (DOS). The DOS acts through U.S. embassies and consulates around the world. Nearly all foreign nationals planning to come to the U.S. for a temporary or permanent stay will need to visit a U.S. consulate first, for a personal interview. Even if you are currently in the U.S., you may also have to travel to a consulate to complete your application. Not all U.S. consulates provide all types of visa-processing services, however. To find out more about the U.S. consulate nearest your home, go to www.usembassy.gov. Note that you cannot normally apply for an immigrant visa (permanent residence) in a U.S. embassy or consulate outside your home country, unless the U.S. has no diplomatic relationship with the government of your homeland. You can apply for nonimmigrant visas (such as tourist visas) in third countries, so long as you have never overstayed your permitted time in the United States, even by one day. The DOS website is www.travel.state.gov.
- The National Visa Center (NVC). This is a private company under contract to the DOS. Its mission is to handle case files during certain intermediate parts of the green card application process. After USCIS has approved a visa petition by a U.S.-based family member or employer, the NVC is given the file and takes care of the case until the time comes to forward the file to the appropriate U.S. consulate or USCIS district office. See the NVC Contact Information page of the DOS website for how to get in touch.
- The U.S. Department of Labor (DOL). The DOL acts primarily through its Employment and Training Administration, at www.doleta.gov. When a visa or green card application is based on a job with a U.S. employer, certain parts of the paperwork--namely what’s called a “labor certification” application -- may have to be filed with and ruled on by the DOL. The DOL’s goal is to make sure that hiring immigrant workers does not make it more difficult for qualified U.S. workers to get a job and that the immigrant is being paid a fair wage (one that does not act to lower the wages of U.S. workers). The DOL’s website is www.dol.gov.
In a typical case, for example, a petitioner might file a visa petition for an oversease family member with USCIS; the case might be transferred to the NVC for interim processing; and then to the U.S. consulate for arranging a visa interview. This should all happen fairly smoothly. Nevertheless, it’s good to keep track of which agency has your application at any given time, just in case. If delays occur, or if you change addresses for example, it’s best to write directly to the agency that last held your file.
For more information on immigration matters, see the Immigration Law page of Nolo's website.