Federal Government Agencies and Commissions Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

This list summarizes information on the past and present federal government bodies that have been most concerned with U.S. immigration issues.

Cabinet-Level DepartmentsDepartment of Agriculture

Date: Established in 1862; became a cabinet-level department in 1889

The Department of Agriculture is one of the U.S. government’s largest cabinet offices with a budget of nearly $100 billion and more than 100,000 employees. The department’s primary mandate is to aid both large and small producers, but it also offers aid to agricultural workers–many of whom are immigrants. Through its numerous subdepartments and agencies, the department touches the lives of virtually everyone in the United States, including immigrants. Most of what the department does affects immigrants only indirectly; however, it played a direct role in the controversial bracero program that began during World War II and continued until 1964.

Department of Defense

Date: Established in 1947

In both manpower and budget, the Department of Defense is the largest of all cabinet-level departments. It oversees not only the Army, Navy, and Air Force but also many intelligence-gathering agencies, some of which maintain surveillance over immigrants. The department also manages programs dealing with immigrants and naturalized citizens in the United States. For example, in January, 2008, the [a]National Defense Authorization Act of 2008National Defense Authorization Act modified parts of the Immigration and Nationality Act so that military spouses could be naturalized at overseas posts where American personnel are stationed, instead of having to wait until they were physically within the United States.

*Department of Homeland Security

Date: Established in 2003

After the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, national security and public safety concerns led to the establishment of this new omnibus department, which consolidated functions that previously had been spread widely across several cabinet departments. With more than 200,000 employees and a budget of more than $45 billion in 2009, this department addresses the safety of all those living in the United States–including immigrants.Homeland Security, Department of

Department of Justice

Date: Established in 1870

This department has a number of regulatory functions that affect everyone on U.S. soil. The most notable of these is the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), the department’s principal investigative arm. From 1940 to 2003, the Bureau of Immigration was housed under the Department of Justice, during which time its name was changed to the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS). In 2003, the INS was terminated and most of its functions were transferred to the new Department of Homeland Security’s U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

Department of State

Date: Established in 1789

State is the cabinet department in charge of U.S. foreign policy, and the first dealings of legal immigrants to the United States are usually with its Consular Service, which grants visas to enter the country through its embassies and consulates across the globe. Historically, the State Department performed many functions pertaining to immigrants that were later transferred to other agencies and departments of the federal government.

Department of Treasury

Date: Established in 1789

In addition to collecting taxes for the federal government, the Treasury Department performs vital economic regulatory functions in maintaining integrity of U.S. currency and guaranteeing the government’s solvency. As such, the department directly affects immigrants as well as those born in the United States. From 1891 until 1903, the Bureau of Immigration was housed under this department.

Other Federal AgenciesBorder Patrol, U.S.

Date: Established in 1924

Created during the Prohibition era to combat the smuggling of liquor into the United States, the Border Patrol later evolved into the federal law-enforcement agency with primary responsibility of protecting U.S. borders against unlawful crossings by undocumented immigrants. In 1933, it was placed under the jurisdiction of the Immigration and Naturalization Service. After the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, it was moved to the new Department of Homeland Security. Combined with several other agencies, it became the U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

*Bureau of Immigration

Date: Established in 1891

The first federal government body to standardize immigration procedures in the United States, the Bureau of Immigration passed under the control of several cabinet departments throughout its history. In 1903, Congress decided that greater emphasis should be placed on attracting immigrants to fill jobs in the United States, so it transferred the bureau to the newly created Department of Commerce and Labor. In 1914, the bureau was moved to the new Department of Labor. In 1933, it was reunited with the Bureau of Naturalization in a single agency, the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service.

Bureau of the Census, U.S.

Date: Established in 1903

The U.S. Constitution required the federal government to conduct a national census every ten years, but censuses were conducted on an ad hoc basis until the Bureau of the Census was created in 1903 as a part of the newly established Department of Commerce and Labor. The bureau has remained within the Commerce Department since the Labor Department was separated in 1914 and has gathered various classes of data on residents of the United States and on the national economy. Throughout its existence, the bureau has collected increasingly detailed information on immigrants that has been used by government policy makers to formulate immigration policies.

*Coast Guard, U.S.

Date: Established in 1790 as the Revenue Cutter Service; formed as the Coast Guard in 1915

Although never permanently part of the Department of Defense, the Coast Guard is the smallest of the five military services. In addition to its military functions during wartime, the Coast Guard is permanently involved in enforcing maritime law and offering assistance to vessels in coastal and interstate waters. Originally under the Department of the Treasury, the Coast Guard was later moved to the Department of Transportation. In 2003, it was placed under the new Department of Homeland Security. As the primary law-enforcement agency protecting national ports and waterways, the Coast Guard has a key role in combatting smuggling and illegal immigration.

*Commission on Civil Rights, U.S.

Date: Established in 1957

This commission investigates complaints about abuses of civil rights, such as citizens being deprived of their right to vote by reason of their race, color, religion, sex, age, disability, or national origin. The commission also studies and collects information on discrimination or denial of equal protection of the laws under the U.S. Constitution and serves as a national clearinghouse for information regarding discrimination or denial of equal protection of the laws based on the same criteria. Lacking direct enforcement powers, the commission submits reports and recommendations to the president and Congress. Although the commission’s primary mandate is to protect the rights of American citizens, its investigations sometimes reveal abuses of immigrants’ rights.

*Commission on Immigration Reform, U.S.

Date: Operated from 1990 to 1997

Created by Congress to investigate the implementation and impact of U.S. immigration policies, this bipartisan commission initially focused on problems associated with illegal immigration but later broadened its agenda to cover other issues, such as family unification and employment needs.Commission on Immigration Reform, U.S.

Dillingham Commission

Date: Operated from 1907 to 1911

Also known as: U.S. Immigration Commission

Under intense threats from nativist elements, Congress created the joint House and Senate U.S. Immigration Commission to study the origins and results of immigration. Because of the political impetus behind the commission’s creation, it is not surprising that the commission found recently arrived immigrants from the southern and eastern Europe to be a threat to American society. The commission demanded a strict English reading and writing test as the best means to block undesirable immigrants and called for greatly reduced immigration from southern and eastern Europe. The commission’s findings were used for decades as justification for restrictive immigration laws.Dillingham Commission

Federal Maritime Commission, U.S.

Date: Established in 1961

President Kennedy, John F.John F. Kennedy persuaded Congress to create he Federal Maritime Commission to regulate U.S. oceanic transportation of foreign commerce. An earlier body had also managed the U.S. Merchant Marine, but this function was given to another agency and subsequently to the Department of Transportation. The commission regulates shipping lines, cruise ship lines, and other passenger ship lines to ensure they have sufficient resources to pay compensation for personal injuries. It also monitors international agencies to protect American shipping from unfair competition. Because many immigrants are involved in maritime transportation, this agency is of special important to them.

Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS)

Date: Operated from 1933 until 2003

A branch of the Department of Justice, the INS was the principal U.S. agency in charge of immigration and immigrants for seventy years, until it was superseded by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. It granted permanent residence, naturalization, and asylum to immigrants–functions similar to those of its successor agency. Throughout its tenure, the INS was criticized from all sides. Nativist elements thought its treatment of illegal immigrants was too lenient. Many business eager to hire immigrants thought its regulations were too tough. Many people thought it treated immigrants too coldly. Almost all its critics regarded it as inefficient.

Public Health Service, U.S.

Date: Established in 1798

Over its long history–during which it has undergone many changes in name and organization–the Public Health Service has had the primary goal of protecting and promoting the health of all residents of the United States, including immigrants. One way in which it has worked to achieve its goal has been through helping to regulate the entry of new immigrants. Health service personnel have examined newly arrived immigrants to prevent persons carrying communicable diseases from entering the country. Immigrants found to have such diseases are either quarantined before being permitted entry or returned to their homelands.

*Select Commission on Immigration and Refugee Policy (SCIRP)

Date: Operated from 1978 to 1981

Congress created this commission to evaluate federal laws and policies concerning immigrants and refugees. Made up mostly of members appointed by Democratic president Jimmy Carter, the commission submitted its final report to the newly installed administration of Republican president Ronald Reagan in early 1981. The commission presented a cautious call for a slight increase in the annual rate of legal immigration, while acknowledging the possible need to limit immigration in the future.Select Commission on Immigration and Refugee Policy

Social Security Administration

Date: Established in 1935

This branch of the Department of Health and Human Services administers the Social Security, MedicaidMedicaid, and MedicareMedicare programs. The Social Security system covers all persons–including immigrants–who are employed in jobs that pay Social Security taxes. Immigrants who pay Social Security taxes for at least ten years enjoy the same benefits from the program as citizens. However, those who pay into the system for fewer than ten years forfeit benefits. Many undocumented immigrants who pay Social Security taxes do not claim benefits for fear of having their illegal immigration status discovered.Social Security system

*U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS)

Date: Established in 2003

When the Department of Homeland Security was created, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services was made one of its branches to replace the widely criticized Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS). However, the new agency inherited most of the functions and personnel of its predecessor–a fact that raised serious questions about how much real reform or change had taken place. The new agency’s officially stated priorities were to promote national security, eliminate immigration-case backlogs, and improve client services. Like the INS, the agency processes immigrant visa applications, including asylum and refugee applications, and evaluates naturalization petitions. One change that directly affected immigrants was a large increase in fees it charged. Like the INS, the USCIS pays for the bulk of its operations through its fees.

Homeland Security, Department of

Bureau of Immigration, U.S.

Coast Guard, U.S.

Commission on Civil Rights, U.S.

Commission on Immigration Reform, U.S.

Select Commission on Immigration and Refugee Policy

Citizenship and Immigration Services, U.S.

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