Out of the dozens of questions regarding immigration law issues from clients, potential clients, acquaintances, family, or friends; perhaps half of them are not related to immigration. There is a generalized confusion as to what is Immigration.
To be clear, the way I am using the word “Immigration” here is the way lay people refer to the word. It is often a noun that describes an institution. “Do you think Immigration might come and get me?”; “Will I get in trouble with Immigration?”
The thing is that there is this generalized confusion as to what Immigration is and what attributes or prerogatives Immigration as an institution possess. It would be impossible to clarify what Immigration as an institution entails in this short article but let’s try to find out quickly by describing first what is NOT Immigration.
Immigration is not Social Security. Immigration cannot issue social security numbers. The department that handles issuance of social security numbers is the Social Security Administration (SSA). Immigration has NOTHING to do with social security. This does not mean, however, that SSA and Immigration, do not talk—for lack of a better word. They do, they coordinate policies because there are—like virtually every government agency—overlaps as to the effect of their policies in the population. Immigration tells SSA for instance: “Do not issue social security numbers, unless we have given a person an Employment Authorization Document (EAD)”. SSA can accept the policy or not. Currently SSA does not issue social security numbers to immigrants that do not have, at a minimum, an EAD. This was not always the case. In the past, SSA has issued social security numbers to immigrants with tourist visas, student visas, or sometimes, to people without any status at all. Thus, SSA has its own authority and jurisdiction and cannot force it to do things.
Immigration is not the Department of Drivers Licenses (DL). “I got my EAD, now when do I get my Drivers License?” The thing is that if you don’t apply for it, you will never get it. Just as in the SSA example, the division of DL will not issue a DL unless you meet certain requirements immigration wise. Most DL centers will require you to show prove of having some legal status in the United States. This is, again, simple coordination between Immigration and a state agency as to their policies. DL departments are not bound by Immigration policies. In fact, California started issuing DL to immigrants without status. They are completely separate, independent departments. One; federal, nationwide. The other; a state entity with policies that change from state to state.
Immigration is not the Internal Revenue Service (IRS). “I have been paying my taxes for the past 10 years, can I get an EAD?”. No. The fact of the matter is that you can be a saint in the eyes of the IRS and a villain in the eyes of Immigration. One department has nothing to do with each other. They both operate independently. It is true that in certain immigration cases or petition, the fact that you pay your taxes to the IRS matters (mostly as a persuasive factor or a favorable equity), however, payment of taxes entitles you to no immigration benefit. The IRS has no authority to grant any immigration benefit.
Immigration is not the State or County Court. “I got married to a US citizen two weeks ago, when will I be receiving my green card?” If you don’t apply and go through a pretty burdensome petition process, you will never get it. In fact, by just getting married in state court Immigration will NEVER know you are married. You will remain without status, if you don’t have one. State or county court, where you get married, is part of the state system; immigration is one (Federal entity) nationwide.
What IS Immigration?
By Immigration, people generally refer to three entities (even though there are more): (1) United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), (2) Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE), and (3) Customs and Border Protection (CBP). All three entities are part of the US Department of Homeland Security or DHS. There are more, but for simplicity sake, (and because this writing targets non-lawyers) we will stop there.
USCIS is the administrative body. What they do is mostly transactional. They process your application for a green card, applications for naturalization, immigrant visa petitions, and some asylum applications, among others. No one is ever afraid of USCIS. USCIS does not chase anyone. For that, we have ICE.
ICE is in charge of enforcing federal laws. Within ICE we have another department, perhaps the most popular within the undocumented population, called Enforcement and Removal Operations (ERO). This is the department that, when you commit a crime and do not have legal status, will come and get you and place you in an immigration “processing” center (euphemism for “immigration jail”). They will make sure you are taken care of until an immigration judge enters an order of deportation.
Finally we have CBP. CBP takes care of the US border—trade and persons. They inspect and admit immigrants and non-immigrants. They are the one at the airport reviewing your passport and making sure you have the appropriate documentation to enter the country. They control imports into the United States and make sure that no illegal items enter the US.
As seen, the word Immigration has a vast meaning. Impossible to describe fully in this short article but that I hope I clarified, at least, a little bit.
Eduardo Ayala Maura