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What Is the USCIS?

Sandi Johnson
Sandi Johnson

The USCIS, also known as the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services, is a government office charged with handling immigration, citizenship, and residency among people from foreign countries who wish to live in the United States. Personnel in this office handle nearly every aspect of the immigration process, from processing visas and work permits to helping naturalize new citizens. Violations and deportations are usually also handled here. The office is a division of the larger U.S. Department of Homeland Security, and was formed in 2002 out of what used to be the Immigration and Naturalization Service, or INS. The newer and reorganized division is more streamlined and, at least in theory, more user-friendly. The headquarters is in the U.S. capital, Washington, D.C., but there are offices and branches in most major cities across the United States; in addition, information and many forms are available through the Immigration Services’ official website.

Creation and Basic Organization

Businesswoman talking on a mobile phone
Businesswoman talking on a mobile phone

Until 2002, the INS handled all issues regarding lawful immigration, enforcement of customs policies, and management of border security. The Homeland Security Act of 2002 reorganized and shifted the focus of many of the core immigration and residency policies, and, among other things, completely reorganized the functions of the Immigration and Naturalization Service. It provided for the creation of a Department of Homeland Security, and created three distinct sub-agencies of that office; USCIS is one of them. In March of 2003, it officially took over all matters regarding the processing of legal immigrants into the United States.

Although inception of the Citizenship and Immigration Services branch only occurred in 2002, immigration regulation has been a part of government responsibility since the late 1800s. The history of immigration in the United States slowly evolved from unfettered access to formalized processes as more foreign nationals sought residency in the States. For over 100 years, federal departments, agencies, and administrative offices have provided services to formalize and regulate immigration. Past incarnations of the USCIS include the Office of Superintendent of Immigration, the Bureau of Immigration and the Immigration and Naturalization Service. Just the same, the modern immigration scene is perhaps one of the most complex and controversial in U.S. history. Balancing many competing needs and interests and staying abreast of a fast-growing volume of filings and petitions are two of the most important immigration tasks today.

Scope and Limitation of Powers

As the administrative arm in charge of benefit applications, Immigration Services retains the ability to award residence status, issue immigrants their green cards, and see to matters regarding citizenship and naturalization. In terms of violations of immigration laws and other enforcement requirements, the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, as part of the Department of Homeland Security, handles those responsibilities.

It’s also important to note here that the Immigration Services’ powers are usually limited to paper. Officials in the division make plans and strategies for handling immigrants and processing their entries, but they aren’t concerned with that entry itself, at least not on a physical level. Actually patrolling the border and processing individuals in is generally a responsibility of the separate, though closely linked, Customs and Border Protection agency.

Processing Paperwork and Granting Residency Permits

According to the immigration laws in force, all newcomers to the United States who intend to stay on a permanent or semi-permanent basis must apply for an appropriate type of residency, based in most cases on their reason for immigrating. There are usually a number of different requirements, but applicants must generally comply with all requests for information, verification of documentation, and reporting requirements set forth by USCIS.

Foreign students are one example. The Immigration Services commonly issues student visas for international students studying in the United States, and officers and staff are responsible for processing and recording appropriate documentation for all student immigrants. There is usually a communication component, as well; the service is typically obliged to communicate with the students about their filing requirements, must track and report on their status, and must generally conduct a range of follow-up tasks.

Naturalization Matters

The USCIS also administers the naturalization test for those immigrants who wish to become United States citizens via the naturalization process. The naturalization test and associated requirements for becoming a citizen have been in place for decades, although the responsibility for oversight is only newly placed with the Immigration Services. In situations of adoption abroad by U.S. citizens, the Services are also charged with matters concerning the naturalization of the adopted children. These children are typically too young to submit to the naturalization test themselves, so in most cases the adoptive parents serve as sponsors on their behalf.

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