Jeffrey Johnson is a legal writer with a focus on personal injury. He has worked on personal injury and sovereign immunity litigation in addition to experience in family, estate, and criminal law. He earned a J.D. from the University of Baltimore and has worked in legal offices and non-profits in Maryland, Texas, and North Carolina. He has also earned an MFA in screenwriting from Chapman Univer...

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UPDATED: Feb 10, 2020

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Immigration law is the practice of law governing the entry, admission, and status of people wishing to transit through, reside in, or become citizens of the United States. It is a vast, complicated field that covers both intending and non-intending immigrants and their ability to work in the United States. Immigration law is primarily federal, administrative law, rather than state law, because is governs the permeability of U.S. borders, not merely its states.

Understanding Immigration Law

Immigration law is governed by federal statutes such as the Immigration and Nationality Act and Code of Federal Regulations, as well as constantly evolving cases decided at the appellate level. The Board of Immigration Appeals, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, and the United States Supreme Court issue new decisions almost every day. At the trial level, immigration judges have varying degrees of discretion to grant relief from deportation from the United States in immigration proceedings. The merits of a respondent’s application for relief from removal are adjudicated at this level. Applicants seeking adjustment of immigration status through family or a spouse apply at the administrative level using forms issued by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service.

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Non-Immigrant Visas

Citizens of other countries must apply to be admitted to the United States. The ability to visit, study, and work in the United States is governed by immigration law. Tourist visas such as the B-2 visa, and non-immigrant visas such as the H1-B visa, are known as non-immigrant visas (NIVs), giving the non-citizen permission to enter the United States legally and remain there to visit or work for a specified period of time. Implicit in NIVs is the person’s intent to return to his or her country of origin. Non-immigrants who remain in the U.S. longer than the permitted period without renewing or extending the visa fall out of status and begin to accrue “unlawful presence” in the United States.

What Is an Illegal Alien?

With some exceptions, illegal aliens is a term broadly used to characterize individuals who either entered without inspection or remained in the United States without permission. Unlawful presence in the United States begins from the time the alien entered without inspection or fell out of status. Once this happens, the alien may be placed in removal or deportation proceedings by the body governing the prosecution of immigration law. Once within the power of the Immigration and Naturalization Services (INS), this task was transferred to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) in 2003. DHS now includes Citizenship and Immigration Services, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and Customs and Border Patrol. 

The Naturalization Process

Naturalization is the process of acquiring U.S. citizenship, usually after gaining status as a legal permanent resident. With rare exceptions, no one automatically becomes a citizen by virtue of an immigrating act. The application for naturalization is accomplished on Form N-400 and requires continuous residency in the United States after issuance of a green card. Once applicants gain legal permanent resident status and remain in the United States for the required period, they are eligible to apply for citizenship. They might be required to interview with an immigration officer and take an oath of allegiance. 

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Getting Legal Help

Because immigration law is complex and always changing, it is important to consult an immigration attorney, not merely a consultant engaged in the unauthorized practice of immigration law. Indeed, one of the major issues plaguing immigrants and their attorneys is the abundance of “notarios” (immigration consultants) illegally advising applicants for a fee. This unauthorized practice of law is fraudulent and can have serious, unforeseen consequences, including deportation, many years later. As such, research the credentials of your lawyer before signing up for his or her services. An easy way to find out if attorneys are licensed to practice law is to look at the website for the state in which they are barred.