The United States has a long history of regulating and managing immigration, dating back to the 1860s. The U.S. Congress — the legislative branch of the federal government of the United States — develops and passes legislation, which the president signs into law, and federal agencies (executive branch) implement legislation.
The primary immigration law today is the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952 (the INA). Most immigration-related legislation since then has amended various sections of the INA.
Among the most significant pieces of immigration-related legislation over the last two decades are the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 (IRCA), the Immigration Act of 1990, the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996 (IIRIRA), and the Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act of 2001 (USA-Patriot Act).
Immigration legislation has also been embedded in other acts and bills. The REAL ID Act, which was passed as part of an emergency supplemental defense appropriation bill in 2005, includes provisions that bar undocumented immigrants from obtaining federally accepted drivers' licenses.
Over the last few years, there have been significant organizational changes in the structure of the agencies that oversee immigrant-related functions in the United States. The most substantial reorganization came as the result of the Homeland Security Act signed by President George W. Bush in November 2002.
According to this legislation, most of the policy and implementation functions of the former Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), which was abolished in March 2003, landed within one of three bureaus of the newly created Department of Homeland Security (DHS). The act also reassigned some responsibilities for visa policy and procedures from the Department of State (DOS), which previously had de facto jurisdiction over the entire visa process.
Nevertheless, as outlined below, a variety of other agencies have immigration-related functions, and some have immigrant integration-related responsibilities even though the United States has no formal integration policy or a dedicated agency for integration. Currently, no single agency or bureau develops immigration policy, coordinates the work, and assesses the effectiveness of various federal agencies in performing their immigration functions.
The diagram below depicts federal agencies that are responsible for implementing, supporting, and enforcing the immigration and integration laws made by the legislative branch. Note: although these agencies have other functions as well, this Spotlight focuses only on those that relate to immigrants.
Click on the name of the agency to read more about its immigration/integration components: