Immigration law in the United States dictates how individuals may obtain U.S. residency or citizenship and also defines the rights and responsibilities of persons who are not U.S. citizens or nationals once they are in the country. Immigration laws have shaped the country's demographics, politics, and culture, generating controversy throughout the ages. It has always been a hot topic in American political and social discourse, but it has become even more so in recent years. As a result, the law surrounding immigration has changed frequently. Lawyers who specialize in this field must guide individuals and businesses through the complexities of a highly technical and very dynamic regulatory scheme.

The federal government has exclusive authority to regulate the criteria for admission to the U.S. and to set the conditions under which non-citizens may remain in the country once admitted. States' authority over immigration law is thus very limited. Within the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS), there are three different agencies which serve the majority of the functions formerly assigned to INS: Customs and Border Protection (CBP), Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Attorneys in these agencies work with immigration laws on a daily basis, as do some attorneys at the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ), which is responsible for enforcing federal immigration laws and challenging state laws that infringe on the federal government's authority over immigration matters.

Private attorneys who practice immigration law typically help their clients obtain visas, employment authorizations, permanent residency, and citizenship. They may also help businesses comply with immigration laws and bring in foreign nationals for work, or they may litigate deportation issues in administrative courts. Because immigration law is mostly a "paper practice," many immigration attorneys find that they rarely are called upon to appear in court. Instead, they generally spend their time counseling clients; drafting petitions, applications, and motions; and filling out government forms. Some immigration attorneys represent immigrants in matters outside the realm of immigration law as well, such as in criminal law and family law cases.

Often, attorneys who work with immigration law entered the field because of a personal experience with immigration law or an interest in human rights and international issues. Once in practice, immigration attorneys gain satisfaction from helping clients achieve their goals and from the intellectual challenge that results from working with such a dynamic body of law. As Assistant Chief Immigration Judge Print Maggard '90 observes, "Immigration is a moving area of the law; it's not static at all." Since immigration law encompasses components of constitutional law, administrative law, and advocacy, many attorneys also find that it is a varied and exciting area in which to practice.

Professional Resources

  • AILA is a national association of attorneys who practice and teach immigration law. Law students can join to gain access to immigration law news, networking opportunities, and other resources.