What is the USCIS?

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  • Written By: Sandi Johnson
  • Edited By: John Allen
  • Last Modified Date: 30 June 2015
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Until 2002, the United States Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) handled all issues regarding lawful immigration, enforcement of customs policies, and management of border security. The Homeland Security Act, passed in 2002, provided for reorganizing the functions of the Immigration and Naturalization Service into three sub-agencies of the Department of Homeland Security. In March of 2003, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, or USCIS, officially took over all matters regarding the processing of legal immigrants into the United States.

As the administrative arm in charge of benefit applications, the USCIS 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. Border protection and customs inspection responsibilities fall to the Customs and Border Protection agency. USCIS merely sees to the administrative duties relative to lawful immigration of citizens from foreign countries.


According to immigration laws, immigrants to the United States must apply for an appropriate type of residency, based on their reason for immigrating. As part of adherence to such laws, these alien residents must comply with all requests for information, verification of documentation, and reporting requirements set forth by USCIS. For example, the USCIS issues student visas for international students studying in the United States. USCIS employees are responsible for processing and recording appropriate documentation for such student immigrants, as well as communicating addition requirements, tracking and reporting the aliens' up to date student status, and all other associated follow-up tasks.

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 U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service. In situations of adoption abroad by U.S. citizens, the Citizenship and Immigration Service is also charged with matters concerning the naturalization of the adopted children. These children are too young to submit to the Naturalization Test, so the adoptive parents instead serve as sponsors for citizenship with USCIS approval.

Although inception of the Citizenship and Immigration Service 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.


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