Immigration Basics: Government Agencies Involved with U.S. Immigration

In order to assist MurthyDotCom readers in their navigation of the complex immigration maze, this brief outline describes the main government entities involved in the immigration process of foreign nationals coming to the United States. The immigration process includes the granting of immigration benefits, as well as control of entry at the borders and the enforcement of existing immigration laws. The division of responsibilities for immigration benefits and enforcement can be confusing.

Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and Relevant Component Agencies

The Department of Homeland Security was created by the Homeland Security Act of 2002. The purpose of the organization is to protect the “homeland” (United States) from threats such as terrorist attacks or natural disasters. The DHS encompasses 22 government agencies, bringing them into a single organization.

There are three main subcomponents of DHS that handle immigration matters: U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS); U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP); and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). The roles of these subcomponents are explained in more detail below. Noticeably absent from this list is the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS). While the term “INS” is still used by some out of habit, that entity ceased to exist as of March 1, 2003.

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS)

The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) approves immigration benefits for eligible foreign nationals. It is responsible for adjudicating petitions for nonimmigrant (temporary) benefits as well as immigrant (permanent) benefits. This includes requests for immigration benefits filed by employers and family members on behalf of foreign nationals. The USCIS is responsible for adjudicating a broad range of applications for immigration benefits, including: asylum, lawful permanent residence, work authorization, and citizenship. The USCIS has local offices throughout the United States, as well as several service centers for case adjudications, specialized asylum offices, and application support centers.

The USCIS WebSite, contains a wealth of information related to the role of the USCIS in the immigration process, and the wide range of benefits for which the USCIS is responsible.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP)

The U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) is responsible for facilitating legal trade and travel at the borders and ports of entry. CBP’s responsibilities extend to the inspection of individuals seeking to enter the United States. CBP officers are responsible for this inspection at the ports of entry (POEs), which include airports, land ports and sea ports. They make decisions regarding the eligibility of foreign nationals to enter the United States in the requested category, and the appropriate duration of the permitted stay.

Most readers have encountered CBP officers during the inspection process at the airport. CBP officers determine eligibility for admission to the U.S. and create appropriate documentation of legal entry, usually an I-94 card. The CBP is also responsible for protecting the borders from terrorism, drug and human trafficking, illegal migration, and agricultural products and pests. More information is available on the CBP WebSite.

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE)

The U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) is the investigative and interior enforcement arm of DHS. ICE is responsible for enforcing federal laws regarding border control, customs, trade, and immigration. ICE is responsible for identifying, investigating, and apprehending noncitizens subject to removal from the United States. ICE attorneys prosecute noncitizens in removal proceedings before an Immigration Judge. More information is available on the ICE WebSite.

U.S. Department of Labor (DOL)

The U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) promotes the welfare and opportunities of workers in the United States and protects U.S. workers. In the immigration context, this means protecting U.S. workers from being displaced by foreign workers and ensuring that U.S. wages are not depressed by the use of (less expensive) non-U.S. labor within the United States.

The DOL is responsible for adjudicating and certifying PERM labor certifications, required in most employment-based green card cases. The DOL also is responsible for issuing labor condition applications (LCAs) required in order to file H1B temporary worker petitions. Both the PERM process and the LCA requirement are intended to protect U.S. workers and wage levels. The DOL has enforcement authority permitting investigations of LCA violations, and issuance of related fines and penalties.

U.S. Department of State (DOS)

The U.S. Department of State (DOS) manages the diplomatic and international relations of the U.S. government. The DOS Bureau of Consular Affairs manages the U.S. embassies and consulates overseas. The embassies and consulates are responsible for issuing visas to foreign nationals, to permit travel to the United States.

Most MurthyDotCom readers will interact with the DOS during the visa application process at a U.S. consulate. The DOS also controls visa numbers in connection with the permanent resident (“green card”) process. It is the DOS that monitors visa number usage and availability, and issues the monthly visa bulletin. More information is available on the DOS WebSite.

The National Visa Center (NVC) is also a part of the DOS. Some readers will interact with NVC, which is the clearinghouse for immigrant visa petitions. For individuals who are processing for permanent residence from outside the United States, the NVC processes cases after petition approval by the USCIS. The NVC collects supporting documents, fees, and applications for pre-processing, and schedules immigrant visa interviews at the U.S. consulates abroad.

U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) and EOIR

The Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR), part of the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ), is responsible for the immigration court system. Foreign nationals charged with violating U.S. immigration laws generally are afforded the opportunity to go before an immigration judge to present their arguments and requests for immigration relief.


The complexity of U.S. immigration law is reflected in the numerous federal government agencies and subdivisions within the agencies involved in the immigration process. It is important to have an understanding of the different roles of each federal agency, and to work with a knowledgeable and experienced attorney who can navigate the system and help you through the complex immigration regulatory web.

Originally published 10.Dec.2010, this MurthyDotCom article has been updated for our readers.


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Disclaimer: The information provided here is of a general nature and may not apply to any specific or particular circumstance. It is not to be construed as legal advice nor presumed indefinitely up to date.