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Immigration Law: A Beginner’s Guide

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While for years immigration has been a much-debated political topic, several issues have caused a recent increase in press attention, including: (1) numerous attempts to pass the DREAM Act in Congress; (2) the recent success of Question 4 in Maryland; and (3) the June 15, 2012 memorandum by Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Janet Napolitano that states that DHS will “exercise prosecutorial discretion” regarding certain young immigrants.  These same issues have made immigration a “hot” topic for legal researchers as well.  The study of immigration law and policy can be very complicated, however, and can derail researchers not familiar with the executive agencies involved or the vocabulary they may use.

[View of Ellis Island, N.Y., looking across water toward immigration station]
[View of Ellis Island, N.Y., looking across water toward immigration station]

Hopefully this short Beginner’s Guide to immigration law research can help you get a good footing in the area before moving on to more advanced topics.


Perhaps the best place to start for newcomers to the field would be with secondary legal resources such as treatises, handbooks, and casebooks dealing with immigration law.  These resources can summarize the law regarding certain immigration topics, provide definitions for key terms, and supply citations to cases, laws, and agency decisions that may be helpful.  The Law Library of Congress offers access to some of the leading resources in the field, including:


Many of the laws that are the basis for what we consider immigration law today can be found in Title 8 of the United States Code (U.S. Code).  Free digital copies of the U.S. Code, from 1994 to 2011, can be found on the Government Printing Office’s Federal Digital System (FDsys).  In addition, the Law Library Reading Room has annotated versions of the U.S. Code—the United States Code Annotated and the United States Code Service—that can help lead researchers to regulations, cases, and journal articles, among other sources, regarding their topics.

Detail from [Immigrants on deck of steamer]
Detail from [Immigrants on deck of steamer]

Similarly, many of the regulations that affect immigration law can be found in Title 8 of the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR).  Free digital copies of the CFR, from 1996 to 2012, are also available through FDsys.

Other Online Resources

Researchers may be interested in the website for DHS, the federal organization most concerned with immigration issues, and those of its subordinate agencies–United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), and Customs and Border Protection (CBP).  Some helpful webpages are:

Other websites that can be very helpful for those going through immigration processes and for those interested in researching these processes, include:

These resources should provide some help for those just starting their immigration law research.  As always, feel free to contact the Law Library of Congress if you have any questions.

Comments (3)

  1. I speak English very well and my family has been citizens of the United States since the 1600’s. I am interested in immigration law, but don’t know much about it. Can you give me some references or referrals?

    I printed “Immigration Law: A Beginner’s Guide” by Barbara Bavis from 12-17-2012.

    If there is a way I can help people who would like to work in the country with paperwork, phone calls, or informational counseling; I can try.
    I am not married, but do rent in a federally subsidized unit. I don’t want to do both. I don’t want to be responsible for anyone, but hope that the government can create practical codes.

  2. Very nice informative blog. This could be very helpful to the immigration lawyers. Keep up the good work.

  3. Thank you for your question, Ginger. The Law Library of Congress does not collect information about immigration organizations that are seeking volunteers at this time. However, here are the websites of some other institutions that have collected information about immigration-related groups and resources:

    • American Bar Association Commission on Immigration, “Resources”:
    • UCLA School of Law Hugh and Hazel Darling Law Library, “Community Immigrant Organizations”:
    • Pace University Law School Library, “Immigration Law Information and Assistance”:
    •, “International/Immigration Organizations”:
    • American Immigration Lawyers Association, “Web Resources: Immigration-Related Organizations”:

    I hope this helps you!

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