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How to Become a USCIS Immigration Officer

The U.S. immigration system is based on four principles: reuniting families, protecting refugees, admitting immigrants with valuable skills, and promoting diversity. Immigration officers are an integral part of this system.

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) is the federal agency that immigration officers work for. Most immigration officers must hold a bachelor’s degree at minimum, though previous governmental experience can sometimes be substituted. More advanced roles often require at least one year of graduate studies. After receiving a job offer, new employees must participate in a nine-week USCIS training program held in Charleston, South Carolina.

What Do Immigration Officers Do?

Immigration officers manage the operations and flow of our immigration system.

Many people confuse immigration officers with immigration enforcement agents, border patrol agents, or customs and border officials. All work within the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS), but different agencies within DHS oversee the various professions.

Paul Bennett, a USCIS trainer, emphasizes one major thing setting the USCIS apart from other immigration agencies: “We’re not law enforcement…we don’t carry weapons and we don’t arrest. Our office is mainly to invite people to tell us what benefit they’re looking for.”

The majority of immigration officers work in office settings, though some positions require travel. They frequently work with other federal, state, and local employees, both within the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and elsewhere.

There are three categories of immigration officers:

Immigration Officer, FDNS

Immigration officers assigned to the Office of Fraud Detection and National Security (FDNS) identify immigrants who use false or misleading information when applying for citizenship, visas, or asylum, also known as “illegal immigrants.” These officers often work with other local, state, and federal government agencies to gather evidence before making their cases and taking action. They must possess thorough and up-to-date knowledge of policies and regulations to do their jobs adequately.

Immigration Information Officer

Immigration information officers help immigrants who legally qualify for entrance to or residence in the U.S. These professionals assist immigrants with filling out applications, review applications to ensure all required information is provided, and speak with applicants about their immigration options. These officers may also make determinations about whether the applicant provided any incorrect or misleading information.

Immigration Services Officer

Immigration services officers request needed documentation when processing applications and interviewing visa, asylum, and citizenship candidates to ensure their requests are credible. They also make decisions about whether to deny or grant an immigrant’s petition and liaise with other governmental agencies about their choices. When required, they may appear at court proceedings or work with the media to disseminate findings or new rules set forth by the Department of Homeland Security.

“I have read the files of people that have come before me. I have seen their journey through paper. I have heard their testimonies. And I don’t think an American Citizen, someone born here will ever understand some of the things that people have gone through to get to America.”

—Lisa Jones, Supervisory Immigration Services Officer, USCIS, Detroit

Requirements for Becoming an Immigration Officer

To become an immigration officer, you need to have met education requirements and undergo a training program. Note that UCSIS maintains several special hiring programs for students, recent graduates, former Peace Corps/AmeriCorps volunteers, veterans, and individuals with disabilities.

Immigration Officer Education Requirements

The education you need depends on the level of the role. For entry-level positions, you will need a bachelor’s degree. You can earn a bachelor’s degree in any field. However, if you want to stand out next to other applicants, consider earning a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice, accounting, a foreign language, or another relevant field. Individuals who already possess relevant experience working for the federal government may be able to bypass this requirement.

For more senior positions, you need at least one year of postgraduate study or a master’s degree. If you have relevant work experience—for example, experience in securing the borders, looking for terrorist activity, or dealing with fraud—you may be able to get a job at this higher level.

USCIS Training Program

Once hired, you will take part in a nine-week orientation at the USCIS training center in Charleston, South Carolina. The program prepares you to work with people of different backgrounds, investigate various threats to the country, and handle immigration issues.

Upon graduating from this training program, you start your probationary period. Most FDNS immigration officers have a one-year probationary period, during which they must prove they can do the job and work efficiently as part of their team.

Immigration Officer Salary and Career Outlook

USCIS follows federal salary guidelines set forth by the Office of Personnel Management (OPM). Each year they produce new General Schedule (base) and Locality Pay Tables. Salaries are arranged by grade and step. There are 15 grades, which represent the responsibility or intensity level of different jobs. Within each grade, there are 10 steps based on merit and the amount of time spent in the field. The government does not disclose specific wages for immigration officers, as factors such as education, experience, and location impact these figures.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics does not collect income data for jobs in the federal government; however, Payscale found the average annual salary for immigration officers to be $59,810 based on submitted wages from immigration officers.

Skills and Characteristics of an Immigration Officer

Immigration officers who excel in their roles often possess a successful blend of skills and traits.

  • Communication: Immigration officers frequently communicate verbally and in writing with individuals in USCIS, other government officials, and those seeking citizenship, visas, or asylum.
  • Familiarity with technology: To manage a massive number of applicants at various stages of the immigration process, USCIS uses sophisticated databases and other technology to keep records organized. Understanding how to use these tools can go a long way in being an effective immigration officer.
  • Second language: Though not usually required, fluency in a second language can help bridge communication gaps between officers and applicants. Knowing a second language can also help candidates stand out from other job seekers.

“You’re connecting people who got separated throughout their lives…it’s a blessing and a privilege to be able to help [these] people.”

—Armin Terzic, former Bosnian refugee and U.S. Immigration Services Officer, USCIS, Lincoln, Nebraska

Alternative/Related Jobs in Immigration

While there are many immigration officer jobs, you may find none of the above the above are the perfect fit for you. If that’s the case, numerous related jobs exist. USCIS provides profiles of current employees to give a better sense of what the work entails.

  • Asylum Officer: These professionals work specifically with citizens of other countries who are fleeing to America due to persecution and endangerment in their homelands. They interview applicants, research conditions in their country of origin, identify if the applicant has any past criminal behavior, collect other documentation, and make recommendations regarding their asylum statuses.
  • Refugee Officer: While immigration officers typically work out of one office, refugee officers travel internationally to interview those seeking refugee status. They determine eligibility, oversee security checks, and help with the resettlement process for approved applicants.
  • Appeals Officer: If an immigration applicant doesn’t agree with a decision about their application, appeals officers handle their case. They review complaints, research previous applicants and decisions made by USCIS staff, and look for consistency in rulings. They then make recommendations as to how the case should be handled.
  • Customs Border Patrol Officer: Professionals in this role are responsible for patrolling entry points and borders of the United States for illegal immigrants, prohibited items, and other criminal activity. There is a rigorous hiring process, and these officers have a high security clearance.

Resources for Immigration Officers

  • Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association (FLEOA): Immigration officers are not law enforcement agents but may find this organization useful. FLEOA is the largest professional association supporting those working in federal law enforcement. The group currently has a roster of more than 26,000 federal employees from 65 agencies. Members can take advantage of legal representation, a 24-hour help hotline, affinity service discounts, scholarships, legislative advocacy, and access to local chapters.
  • A Day in the Life of USCIS: This is a great read if you want to learn more about the details of work within USCIS. The article highlights the different tasks performed by the agency to keep immigration services moving smoothly.
  • American Immigration Council: How the United States Immigration System Works: Learn all about our immigration system, including admissions numbers and the process for immigrating.
  • Center for Immigration Studies: Historical Overview of Immigration Policy: Learn about immigration policy starting in the 1800s and how U.S. policy has changed over the years.
  • Migration Policy Institute, U.S. Immigration Policy Program: You can find a host of articles about immigration, including statistics and discussions of current policy.