What Is Immigration Law?

Navigating one of the most complicated areas of law

By Super Lawyers staff | Reviewed by Canaan Suitt, J.D. | Last updated on February 2, 2023

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U.S. immigration law comes into play in myriad scenarios: when couples get married and wish to live together in the United States; when U.S. citizens want to bring their family members to live with them; when employers want to bring qualified noncitizens to work for them in the United States. There is also an area of immigration law dedicated to refugees and asylum seekers.

Immigration is primarily under the federal government’s control and is made up of complex laws and regulations in the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA). Federal agencies enforcing immigration laws include:

Navigating these laws can be overwhelming, as immigration is perhaps one of the most complicated areas of law.

Immigration Law – What You Need to Know

  • Immigrants are noncitizens born in a foreign country who are then admitted to live in the U.S. as lawful permanent residents.
  • Applicants must submit information that is then reviewed by U.S. immigration services to assess eligibility.
  • Required information includes criminal history, residence and employment history, and familial information.
  • Applicants must also submit specific documentation, including copies of their birth certificate and medical records.

An Overview of Immigration Law

A U.S. immigrant is born outside of the United States and then admitted to live in the U.S. as a lawful permanent resident. Immigrants are typically admitted through one of three processes: family-based immigration, employment-based immigration, or through the annual diversity visa lottery. People residing outside the United States may also be admitted as refugees if they meet the requirements to obtain refugee status.

When someone applies for an immigrant visa, they must submit information that is reviewed by U.S. immigration services. Required information includes criminal history, residence and employment history, and familial information. The application also requires specific documentation, including a copy of a birth certificate and medical records.

The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) website is a valuable resource for those seeking forms or procedures to obtain a green card.

Family-Based Immigration

If you are a United States citizen or a lawful permanent resident, you can file a petition with the U.S. government to allow your family to immigrate to the United States. There are two groups of family members eligible for family-based immigration status: immediate relatives and members of family preference categories.

Immediate relatives include the following family members of U.S. citizens:

  • Spouses
  • Unmarried children under 21
  • Parents of a U.S. citizen who is at least 21

The following groups of other family members can be admitted through family-based immigration if they are not otherwise inadmissible:

  • Unmarried children of U.S. citizens
  • Spouses, minor children, and unmarried children over 21 of lawful permanent residents
  • Married children of U.S. citizens and their spouses and minor children
  • Brothers and sisters of U.S. citizens and their spouses and minor children

There is no limit on the number of visas issued to immediate family members. All other family-based visa applications are subject to immigration laws that limit the number of visas available and the number of visas that will be issued for each country.

Employment-Based Immigration

U.S. immigration law holds that citizens of a foreign country (foreign nationals) can become lawful permanent residents through U.S. employment. The employer seeking to sponsor an immigrant must follow specific requirements to demonstrate that qualified U.S. workers are absent. Employment-based immigration laws create three preference categories.

First Preference

Employment-based immigration priority goes to foreign nationals with extraordinary abilities in science, arts, education, business, or athletics. Also included in this preference category are outstanding professors and researchers and some multinational managers and executives.

Second Preference

This preference category includes foreign nationals who hold advanced degrees or have exceptional ability.

Third Preference

The final employment-based preference category is for skilled workers, professionals, or other workers.

Refugees and Asylum

A refugee is a person who has been forced to leave their country because of war, persecution, or natural disaster. To qualify for refugee status, you must show you have a “well-founded fear of persecution” based on race, religion, membership in a social group, political opinion, or national origin. You may only seek refugee status from outside the United States.

On the other hand, asylum is available to people who meet the definition of a refugee but are already in the United States. In other words, an asylum applicant must show a well-founded fear of persecution based on one of the five grounds listed above. People seeking admission at a port of entry may also apply for asylum.

Bars to Admissibility

There are some situations where you may be deemed inadmissible and will not be allowed to enter the United States. General categories of inadmissibility include:

  • Health
  • Criminal activity
  • National security
  • Public charge
  • Lack of required labor certification
  • Fraud and misrepresentation
  • Prior removals
  • Unlawful presence

If you believe you are inadmissible, you may want to speak with an immigration lawyer to determine whether you qualify for a waiver.

Common Questions to Ask an Immigration Attorney

Below are some common questions you might want to consider when meeting with an attorney.

  1. How do I become a legal resident of the United States?
  2. What is adjustment of status?
  3. What if DHS has already begun removal proceedings against me?
  4. What is temporary protected status (TPS), and can I qualify?
  5. How long will it take for my family members to get their visas?
  6. How do I get a visa for my fiancé?
  7. Do I qualify for a legal immigration waiver?
  8. What is the difference between refugee and asylee status?

Finding the Right Immigration Attorney for Your Needs

It is essential to approach the right type of attorney—someone up to date on U.S. immigration policy who can help you through your entire case. To do so, search the Super Lawyers directory, using the search box to find a lawyer based on your legal issue or location. To help you get started, look for a lawyer specializing in immigration law.

Should I Talk to a Lawyer?

An experienced attorney can assist you with your legal immigration issues and help you achieve legal resident status.

Immigration lawyers are knowledgeable in various issues, including deportation and naturalization. Immigration law is full of requirements and many exceptions to those requirements. You will have to follow specific steps, and mistakes can significantly delay your legal immigration case. An experienced lawyer will help you avoid making mistakes and can also help determine whether you will need to apply for a waiver or not.

A lawyer will further anticipate potential problems with your case and advise you on how to navigate the larger immigration system. They may even be able to help you avoid potential problems altogether. Your lawyer will also keep track of deadlines and file all the paperwork with the necessary immigration courts and government agencies, giving you one less thing to worry about as you obtain legal status.

What do I do next?

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