US citizenship and immigration services are no longer for immigrants.
This is not an exaggeration. USCIS, the federal agency responsible for issuing visas and green cards and naturalizing immigrants as U.S. citizens, has unveiled a new mission statement that removes all references to immigrants themselves, including by removing a line that qualifies the United States as a “nation of immigrants”. And in an email to agency staff on Thursday, as first reported by Ryan Devereaux of Intercept, director L. Francis Cissna bragged about the change – claiming USCIS was not meant to help immigrants and American citizens seeking to sponsor them, but rather “the American people.”
Cissna’s new mission statement and rationale downplays the agency’s commitment to helping immigrants become U.S. citizens and emphasizes the idea that U.S. citizens attempting to bring family members to the United States do not count as real Americans whose interests deserve to be protected.
USCIS’s new mission statement doesn’t just reflect the Trump administration’s hawkishness towards legal and unauthorized immigration. He encourages the idea that Americanity is about blood and land, birth and ancestry, rather than an idea that everyone can be proud of, regardless of where they were born.
Take “citizenship” out of the mission of Citizenship and Immigration Services
Changes to the USCIS mission statement do not change the work actually performed by the agency. But they’re making a token statement that the Trump administration sees it to work differently not only from how the Obama administration has done it, but from our traditional understanding of what Americanity means.
It’s not just the removal of the “nation of immigrants” line. The new mission statement removes all references to citizenship – instead of “immigration and citizenship benefits,” USCIS now only provides “immigration benefits” and “promoting an empowerment. awareness and an understanding of citizenship ”is completely excluded from the mission.
As the agency emphasizes the part of its job that is turning immigrants into citizens, its new mission implies that the two groups – immigrants and Americans – are naturally in conflict:
The United States Citizenship and Immigration Services administer the country’s legal immigration system, upholding its integrity and promise by effectively and fairly processing applications for immigration benefits while protecting Americans, securing the homeland and respecting our values.
Cissna’s email also told USCIS staff that they are no longer supposed to call applicants “clients” because their real clients aren’t immigrants – they’re Americans:
Referring to applicants and applicants for immigration grants and the recipients of such applications and petitions as “clients” promotes an institutional culture that emphasizes the ultimate satisfaction of applicants and applicants, rather than correct handling of such requests and petitions in accordance with the law. […] The use of the term leads to the mistaken belief that the candidates and petitioners, rather than the American people, are those we ultimately serve. “ [emphasis added]
It’s a strange statement to make. On the one hand, USCIS is the rare federal agency that is not primarily funded by taxes – most of the money to run the agency comes from application fees. Immigrants who apply for visas, green cards, and citizenship – as well as U.S. citizens and businesses that must sponsor some of these applications – pay USCIS for the services they provide. By a common sense definition, this is what a customer is.
But what is even more shocking than the redefinition of “customer” is the definition of “American”. Cissna’s statement strongly implies that “the plaintiffs and petitioners” do not count as part of the “American people”. It might make sense if he only spoke of people new to the United States, or even if he distinguished “Americans” from non-citizens. But it is not.
The “applicants” Cissna refers to immigrants applying for US citizenship – the part of the USCIS function that was removed from the mission statement. Not only does the new mission statement suggest that helping immigrants become Americans is no longer part of the job of USCIS, but in distinguishing “candidates” from “the American people,” it suggests that they can not.
Additionally, the overwhelming majority of immigrant applicants are US citizens who apply for family members (or US businesses who apply for employees). These citizens may have been born abroad, but they have naturalized. They are as American as anyone else.
Does the Trump administration believe immigrants can integrate?
USCIS tends to be the more obscure of the Department of Homeland Security’s three immigration agencies, precisely because it is the one that does not look after immigration law enforcement (customs and border protection are responsible for border enforcement; immigration and customs law enforcement is responsible for enforcement inside). But immigrant rights advocates have worried about the agency.
Cissna worked for Senate Judiciary Committee (and Immigration Hawk) Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-IA) before being appointed to USCIS. The agency’s ombudsman’s office, which is supposed to provide transparency to people who used to be called “clients,” is headed by Julie Kirchner, the former executive director of the Federation for Reform of the Government. American immigration – a group whose mission includes reducing legal immigration to the United States.
There are already indications that the new management is encouraging applications to be processed more slowly and with more scrutiny. By ending the Deferred Action Program for Childhood Arrivals, they have been more aggressive than Trump’s statements suggested. At the same time, there has been an apparent slowdown in the processing of naturalization applications and work permits for certain categories of immigrants.
By revamping the mission statement, it’s clear that the new leadership wants to be noticed.