Immigration and Naturalization Service, U.S. Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service was long the primary federal agency responsible for the protection and enforcement of laws guiding the immigration and naturalization processes. It was also responsible for investigating, arresting, prosecuting, and deporting aliens who entered the United States illegally. After the agency was dissolved in 2003, its functions were distributed among three new federal agencies.

Through its seventy-year history, the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, or INS, was the branch of the U.S. Department of Justice that handled both legal and illegal immigration matters. During the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the U.S. population expanded exponentially with immigrants pouring into the country from all over the world. These early immigrants entered the country without having to carry documents or meet the requirements of immigration law.Immigration and Naturalization Service, U.S.Homeland Security, Department of;Immigration and Naturalization ServiceBureau of Immigration, U.S.Immigration and Naturalization Service, U.S.Homeland Security, Department of;Immigration and Naturalization ServiceBureau of Immigration, U.S.[cat]GOVERNMENT AGENCIES AND COMMISSIONS;Immigration and Naturalization Service, U.S.[02670][cat]LAW ENFORCEMENT;Immigration and Naturalization Service,U.S.[02670]

Government Reorganization

In 1891, the federal government created the U.S. Bureau of Immigration, U.S.Bureau of Immigration within the Department of the Treasury to oversee the administration of immigration law. After going through several administrative reorganizations and cabinet department shifts, the bureau was combined with the previously separate Bureau of NaturalizationBureau of Naturalization into the Immigration and Naturalization Service within the Department of Labor. Put in charge of controlling all aspects of illegal immigration into the United States, this new agency oversaw the U.S. Border Patrol, U.S.Border Patrol.

In 1940, President Franklin D. Roosevelt transferred the INS from the Department of Labor to the Department of Justice. Over the ensuing decades, the duties and responsibilities of the INS continued to evolve. The agency experienced a dark period during World War IIWorld War II[World War 02];and Immigration and Naturalization Service[Immigration and Naturalization Service], when it was put in charge of operating and maintaining internment camps and detention centers for enemy aliens and sympathizers. Through the balance of the twentieth century, the agency concentrated on cracking down on illegal immigration resulting from weak border patrol and surveillance efforts. As new laws were enacted, the INS and Border Patrol became essential tools in the fight against domestic and foreign Terrorism;and U.S. Border Patrol[Border Patrol]terrorism while continuing to regulate the flow of legal immigrants into the United States.

Structure of the INS

After being reassigned to the Department of Justice, the INS was restructured internally. Its top administrators were commissioners appointed by the president of the United States. The commissioners reported directly to the U.S. attorneys general. A comparatively large bureaucratic agency, the INS comprised four main subdivisions: programs, field operations, policy and planning, and management. Its Programs Division handled all functions pertaining to enforcement and investigations, including arrest, detention, and deportation of undocumented immigrants as well as the regulation and processing of all legal aliens attempting to enter the country.

The Field Operations Division was accountable for the oversight of numerous INS field offices both at home and abroad. It was responsible for the implementation of policies and delegated tasks for its three regional offices. In turn, administrators from these regional offices oversaw thirty-three districts and twenty-one border-area offices throughout the United States. Globally, the Field Operations Division was also tasked with directing the INS’s Office of International Affairs headquarters that provided oversight for sixteen offices in other countries. Additionally, the division worked directly with the United Nations, the U.S. Department of State, and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to ensure that human and civil rights of all who entered the United States, both legally and illegally would, be safeguarded.

The third major division of the INS, the Office of Policy and Planning, oversaw coordinating, housing, and distributing all information related to immigration-related services. This division was also responsible for official communications with other cooperating federal agencies and the general public, along with all research and evaluation efforts.

The fourth office of the INS was the Management Division, which provided key administrative services to all field offices, both at home and abroad. These services included offices tasked with such items as information resource and technical management, finance, human resources, and clerical support.


On March 1, 2003, the INS was officially disbanded. Most of its original functions and responsibilities were delegated to three new federal agencies to be housed in the newly created Department of Homeland Security, a new federal department created in response to the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacksaftermath of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. All border divisions of the former INS, which included patrol, investigation, prosecution, and deportation of all illegal immigrants, were combined with branches of the Customs Service, U.S.U.S. Customs Service to form a new agency called U.S. Customs and Border Protection.Immigration and Naturalization Service, U.S.Homeland Security, Department of;Immigration and Naturalization ServiceBureau of Immigration, U.S.

Further Reading
  • Andreas, Peter. Border Games: Policing the U.S.-Mexico Divide. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2001. Academic work that offers insights into the many political elements behind the patrolling of the U.S. border with Mexico.
  • Boehm, Randolph, et al., eds. Records of the Immigration and Naturalization Service. Bethesda, Md.: University Publications of America, 1995. Revealing collection of official documents that provides a unique look at the INS throughout its history.
  • Cohen, Steve. Deportation Is Freedom! The Orwellian World of Immigration Controls. Philadelphia: Jessica Kingsley, 2005. Critical analysis of the implementation of U.S. immigration laws, with particular attention to the work of the Immigration and Naturalization Service.
  • Galan, Mark, and Edward Dixon. Immigration and Naturalization Service. New York: Chelsea House, 1990. Part of a series on federal agencies designed for young readers, this brief book covers the historical foundations of the INS and traces the evolution of the agency’s changing responsibilities.
  • Juffras, Jason. Impact of the Immigration Reform and Control Act on the Immigration and Naturalization Service. Santa Monica, Calif.: RAND Corporation, 1991. Brief study of the impact of the 1986 federal immigration law on the INS in eight major cities.
  • Weissinger, George. Law Enforcement and the INS: A Participant Observation Study of Control Agents. Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 1996. Drawing on interviews with INS investigators, this study describes the structure of the INS in its social context.

Border Patrol, U.S.

Bureau of Immigration, U.S.

Citizenship and Immigration Services, U.S.

Commission on Immigration Reform, U.S.

Drug trafficking

Goldman, Emma

Homeland Security, Department of

Immigration Act of 1891

9/11 and U.S. immigration policy

Patriot Act of 2001

Categories: History