Guide to Laws about Immigration and Traveling to the United States

Here you will find information about what immigrants, migrants, and other non-citizens can or can’t do in the U.S., and how the government can or can’t treat them. For the process of immigrating to the U.S., see our Guide to Legally Living and Working in the United States.

A note on the immigration agencies

Immigration and incoming foreign travel used to be handled primarily by a single agency called INS, which was dismantled in 2002 and replaced by 3 agencies: United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS, or simply CIS), Customs and Border Protection (CBP), and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). CIS processes applications for foreign nationals to enter or immigrate to the U.S., including green cards and citizenship. CBP enforces immigration laws near the borders and at ports of entry. ICE enforces immigration laws within the U.S.Statue of Liberty

1. Entering the Country

Can anyone come to the United States?

If you are not a U.S. citizen, you generally must get a visa to enter the United States, unless you come from a visa waiver country. Try the Department of State’s Visa Wizard tool to find out information specific to your country of origin.

All individuals entering the country are vetted for potential threats to national security and may be denied entry if the government deems them to be a risk.

Can the government issue a blanket ban on individuals from certain countries?

Yes, the government can prevent non-citizens from specified nations from entering the U.S. if the government claims it is for “national security” purposes.1Trump v Hawaii (2018)

In 2017, former President Trump issued a travel ban that blocked most visitors and immigrants from Iran, Libya, Syria, Somalia, Yemen and North Korea. Although Trump made remarks that it was intended as a “Muslim ban” (originally it did not include North Korea), the Supreme Court upheld the ban and said it did not violate the right to freedom of religion, as the travel ban order itself did not explicitly mention Muslims. This travel ban has now been revoked by President Biden.

Can the government deny entry or deport people without a court hearing?

Generally, non citizens are entitled to have their case heard as to whether they are legally entitled to be in the U.S. This is called due process or judicial process. See more about due process at our Guide to Civil Rights.

2. Detaining and deporting non-citizens

Can non-citizens be held by the government indefinitely?

Adult non citizens can be detained indefinitely while they are in immigration or deportation proceedings to determine whether they are legally entitled to stay in the U.S.2Jennings v Rodriguez

As for immigrant children who entered the country without authorization and were not accompanied by a parent, the government generally may NOT keep them in custody for longer than 20 days if they can place children with a close relative or family friend. The government must attempt to find a close relative or family friend “without unnecessary delay,” but if they can’t, the government must keep any children in custody in the “least restrictive conditions” possible.3Flores Settlement, Flores v Reno (1997) They are still then subject to applicable immigration or deportation proceedings.

See Guide to Laws about Police Conduct for the laws that apply to individuals in the country legally.

Can migrant children be separated from their parents?

As of June 20, 2018, the latest executive order says that if children enter the country illegally with a parent, the families are not to be separated. Instead, they will be held in custody together while they are in immigration/deportation proceedings.

Can “Dreamers” be deported?

Dreamers are generally defined as those brought to the U.S. illegally as children by their parents. There is currently a policy in place called DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals), where certain Dreamers can qualify for protected status and not be deported as long as they do not commit serious crimes and follow other rules. As of January 2019 this program is still in effect.

3. Working in the U.S.

Can a non-citizen work without authorization in the U.S.?

Unless you are a legal permanent resident (green card), you may not work in the U.S. unless you have an Employment Authorization Document.4see CIS page on EAD Employers are required to verify that you are allowed work in the U.S. by having you fill out an I-9 form and show them certain documentation.

4. Driver Licenses

Can an unauthorized immigrant get a drivers license? 

In some states, yes. For example, see the California immigration law guide.

5. Firearms

Can non-citizens own firearms?

You may not own a firearm or any type of gun unless you are a legal permanent resident (with a green card).5U.S. Code Title 18, Section 922(g) Some exceptions:6U.S. Code Title 18, Section 922(y)

  • for hunting purposes
  • official representatives of foreign governments
  • if you get a waiver from the U.S. Attorney General

Further Resources

Find an immigration lawyer.



Share the Legal Info With Your Friends: