Immigration Law

Immigration law encompasses the national statutes, regulations and legal precedent that govern immigration into and deportation from a country. Some lawyers specialize in immigration law, encompassing areas like asylum and refugee law.


The government refuses refugee status to people who face persecution on account of race, religion, nationality or membership in a social group. Those who are granted asylum are allowed to remain in the United States.

The Origins of Immigration Law

Since the United States gained independence from Great Britain, immigration laws have been a constant presence in our country’s history. Early laws tended to be restrictive and favor Europeans, but since 1965 immigration has become increasingly diverse and open. Immigration law has also changed as societal values have evolved.

In the beginning, immigrants came to America voluntarily, either as merchants seeking business opportunities or settlers looking for religious toleration. But by the mid-19th century, many began coming to America involuntarily, either as English convicts transported from their home countries or as African slaves brought over in the trade. In response, Congress began imposing limits on who could enter the nation and what kind of immigration it allowed.

For example, the Intolerable Acts, Alien Enemies Act and Alien Contract Labor Act restricted the entry of people who might disrupt American society or business. Other laws blocked the immigration of people deemed likely to become criminals or to create public charges, such as the Chinese Exclusion Act and the Alien Work Permit Act of 1882.

A series of Supreme Court cases established that the federal government alone has the right to create and regulate immigration policy (Weissbrodt & Danielson, 2004). This is why immigration laws tend to change over time to reflect new social attitudes or governmental concerns. As of the 1990s, there are four evident goals of immigration legislation that continue to influence our national policies: family reunification, refugee sheltering, fostering economic growth and “diversifying” the source of immigrants.

The Quota System

A quota system of affirmative action reserves seats in a competition for members of marginalized identity groups. The number of group applicants selected is often formally set to correspond to the proportion of that group in the general population, though this need not characterize every quota system. Separate quotas may also be reserved for more than one group, and the rank order of applicants in each quota category need not match that of all other applicants.

Quota systems may be mandated by law (reserved seat quotas), enshrined in the constitutions of individual political parties (voluntary party quotas) or simply established as a policy of the electoral law (general election quotas). The latter two types are usually regarded as the most politically viable if a democratic government wishes to introduce them. However, a number of important issues must be taken into account, including how the quotas are calculated and the ranking criteria for selecting candidates.

Moreover, enforcement systems need to be in place for any quota system to be effective. The most common sanction for violating a quota system is monetary fines. More drastic penalties, such as prison terms, are rare or never imposed. The quota system is generally thought to be more appropriate for industrialized economies than transitional or developing ones. It does not fit well in economies with underdeveloped energy markets, for example.

The Immigration and Nationality Act (INA)

The Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) is the basic body of law that governs immigration. It was created in 1952, and it centralized several statutes into one act. It also eliminated racial discrimination in the United States’ visa and green card process, but it kept restrictions for immigrants from certain countries, including quotas for each country based on their national origin.

It also established a seven-category preference system that gives priority to relatives of U.S. citizens and legal permanent residents, professionals with specialized skills, refugees, and more. It capped immigration from the Western Hemisphere, which was the first time that was done in the United States.

The INA’s Section 245(i) allows undocumented people to adjust their status in the United States. This option helps people avoid the bars and punishments of being deported that can keep someone overseas for years, while it also means they’re eligible to receive a green card.

Today, Congress enacts almost all immigration laws through the INA, which can be found in Title 8 of the United States Code. AILA’s INA volume is the most comprehensive source of information on this important piece of legislation. The latest edition is available through March 17, 2023 and includes all of the immigration-related statutes that appear in Title 8. AILA’s INA volume also has an easy-to-follow layout and a compact size.

The Immigration Act of 1990

Passed by Congress and signed into law by President George H. W. Bush, this act made significant adjustments to the immigration policies established by the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act. It broadened the family-based visa categories, created five distinct employment based visas, and expanded the diversity visa program to admit immigrants from countries with low admission rates.

It also streamlined the visa waiver program for foreign tourists and increased the maximum number of asylees allowed to adjust their status each year. The act also amended the definition of “aggravated felony” to include trafficking in controlled substances and added new grounds for deportation, including crimes involving moral turpitude, multiple convictions, and failure to register or falsify documents.

It lowered the requirement for English fluency to naturalization, and eliminated language testing before naturalization. It also added new anti-discrimination provisions, including prohibitions against intimidation of individuals who exercise their rights and privileges or file anti-discrimination complaints and increases civil monetary penalties for discriminatory practices. It also provided for the establishment of a commission to evaluate and analyze the impact of legal immigration and required that the Commissioner of INS provide to Congress and the public certain statistics and information about immigration and naturalization. It also amended the visa classification for alien crewmembers and disqualified them from receiving public welfare benefits if they were employed during a labor dispute.