USCIS Changes Its Mission Statement

Much ado about nothing

By Andrew R. Arthur on February 23, 2018

I'm not sure when federal agencies began issuing "mission statements". For what it's worth, I'm not sure why federal agencies even have mission statements. If the employees do not know what the mission of their agency is, they probably need to find new jobs. And, if the citizens do not know what the mission of an agency is, that mission is either (1) covert; or (2) nonessential to such a degree that it is unclear why taxpayers are footing the bill for the agency to begin with.

Nonetheless, the press has been breathlessly reporting that U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) has changed its mission statement. This "news" is much ado about nothing.

As USA Today reported today, the agency's former mission statement read:

USCIS secures America's promise as a nation of immigrants by providing accurate and useful information to our customers, granting immigration and citizenship benefits, promoting an awareness and understanding of citizenship, and ensuring the integrity of our immigration system.

I would normally consider this to be a fairly anodyne statement, at least at first reading. A closer examination of it, however, reveals some disturbing facts, as well as one that is so self-evident as to be superfluous.

Let me start with the superfluous, which is the statement that America is "a nation of immigrants". While this statement (knowingly or not) would appear to discount the fact that Native Americans are citizens, too, its intent is clear. Most of us as citizens are either the descendants of immigrants, or are former immigrants (and naturalized citizens). The United States is "a nation of immigrants" whether USCIS says that it is or not. And, as my former high school geometry teacher (a Jesuit through and through) would often say in response to the answer to one of his Socratic questions, the inclusion of this phrase is "true, but not useful", at least in this context.

This is not to say that it is not useful for everyone charged with applying the immigration laws of the United States (and the citizenry as a whole) to remember that we are "a nation of immigrants". The fact is, however, this sentiment really has no place in the mission statement of an agency of the United States government charged with impartially applying the immigration laws to applications for benefits.

To explain: As a former immigration judge, it was my job to apply many of the same laws in much the same way as the adjudicators at USCIS. Then-Judge, now Justice Neil Gorsuch, best explained the primary duty of any judge in a speech he gave at Harvard University a few years back:

As my daughters remind me, donning a robe doesn't make me any smarter. But the robe does mean something — and not just that I can hide coffee stains on my shirt. It serves as a reminder of what's expected of us — what Burke called the "cold neutrality of an impartial judge." It serves, too, as a reminder of the relatively modest station we're meant to occupy in a democratic society. In other places, judges wear scarlet and ermine. Here, we're told to buy our own plain black robes — and I can attest the standard choir outfit at the local uniform supply store is a good deal. Ours is a judiciary of honest black polyester.

Regrettably, "cold neutrality" is in limited supply on the federal judiciary at the moment, but this quote could serve as the mission statement for any court. Neutrality and impartiality are what the citizens of a free republic should expect from their judges; anything less undermines respect for the rule of law, and therefore the law itself.

Adjudicators at USCIS do not wear black robes, but they should comport themselves as if they did. Specifically, they should adjudicate every application and petition that comes before them impartially and neutrally. But frankly, the agency's old mission statement appeared to tip the balance in favor of the applicant, petitioner, or beneficiary, as the case may be.

To prove this, I would diagram that statement as my sixth grade English teacher (a Franciscan nun, through and through) would have me do, but this is a skill I have long since lost. Instead, I will simply quote selectively from that former mission statement: "USCIS secures America's promise as a nation of immigrants by ... granting immigration and citizenship benefits." While that is a fine expression of fact for those applications and petitions that merit positive action, it suggests that the failure to grant an application or petition "endanger[s]" (a form of the first thesaurus antonym for "secure[s]") "America's promise as a nation of immigrants." Perhaps such a perception is the reason why credible fear is found, as the attorney general has noted, "in 88 percent of claims adjudicated."

This is not the only problem with USCIS's former mission statement. Referring to applicants and petitioners as "customers" not only gives a false perception, but it is also imprecise and wrong. Merriam Webster defines a "customer" as: "one that purchases a commodity or service". In the immigration adjudication business, such a mercantile transaction would best be described as a "bribe". Applicants and petitioners before USCIS do (generally) pay a fee to the agency for an adjudication. That is not a "purchase", because there is no guarantee of a positive result. The fee payment is just that: a fee, paid in order to have the opportunity to have a neutral and impartial adjudication.

Returning to my service as an immigration judge: Aliens often had to pay a "fee" for various applications that they would file with the court. Those aliens were no more my "customer" for having done so then U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) was my "customer" for having paid for my courtroom, or the attorney general was my customer because she paid my salary. The respondent and ICE were "parties", and therefore the only thing that anyone was paying for was a neutral and impartial adjudication. My "customers" (if there were any) were the American people; it was to them that I owed my loyalty, and they were paying for my service.

The same is true of USCIS adjudications (even though there is only one "party" in that context), as the USCIS director explained in connection with the agency's new mission statement:

What we do at USCIS is so important to our nation, so meaningful to the applicants and petitioners, and the nature of the work is often so complicated, that we should never allow our work to be regarded as a mere production line or even described in business or commercial terms. In particular, referring to applicants and petitioners for immigration benefits, and the beneficiaries of such applications and petitions, as "customers" promotes an institutional culture that emphasizes the ultimate satisfaction of applicants and petitioners, rather than the correct adjudication of such applications and petitions according to the law. Use of the term leads to the erroneous belief that applicants and petitioners, rather than the American people, are whom we ultimately serve. All applicants and petitioners should, of course, always be treated with the greatest respect and courtesy, but we can't forget that we serve the American people.

The agency's new mission statement is much more accurate, and truthful to what the mission of the agency should be. That mission statement reads:

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services administers the nation's lawful immigration system, safeguarding its integrity and promise by efficiently and fairly adjudicating requests for immigration benefits while protecting Americans, securing the homeland, and honoring our values.

Frankly, as a statement of the principles and tenets on which this country was built, this new mission statement is far superior to the old one, without sacrificing the sentiment that ours is a "nation of immigrants".

What is the "promise" of America? First and foremost, it is equality before the law. Part of the reason why we are a "nation of immigrants" is because we came from countries where there was no such "promise". Without getting personal, every one of my ancestors of whom I am aware came from a country that had perfectly fine laws, which were unfortunately unequally applied. Here, on the other hand, each of us (with only extremely limited exceptions), both citizen and alien, is entitled to due process of law.

And what is the "promise" of our "nation's lawful immigration system"? A neutral and impartial adjudication, consistent with the aforementioned due process of law. If you (or a beneficiary) are entitled to a benefit or relief, you get it; if not, you do not.

This is reflected in the last clause of that new mission statement: "honoring our values". What are the "values" of USCIS? The agency website sets them out: "integrity", "respect", "innovation", and "vigilance". As for "respect", the agency states:

We will demonstrate respect in all of our actions. We will ensure that everyone we affect will be treated with dignity and courtesy regardless of the outcome of their case. We will model this principle in all of our activities with each other, our customers, and the public. Through our actions, USCIS will become known as an example of respect, dignity, and courtesy.

With respect to "integrity", the agency states:

We will always strive for the highest level of integrity in our dealings with our customers, our fellow employees, and the citizens of the United States of America. We review each case before us on its own merit and reach decisions that are based on the law and facts. We will be ever mindful of the importance of the trust the American people have placed in us to administer the nation's immigration system fairly, honestly, and correctly.

While the word "customers" in these definitions likely needs to be revised, these values hardly denigrate the United States as a "nation of immigrants". If anything, it raises that principle up, and demonstrates who we are as a people.

Cool reflection on these facts used to be the touchstone of the press. Not in this context, however. For example, NPR "reports": "America No Longer A 'Nation Of Immigrants,' USCIS Says." Sorry, NPR, but no it doesn't, not that it would undermine this fact even if it did.

Taking this idea to the extreme, the Washington Post proclaims: "Immigration services director who eliminated 'nation of immigrants' motto is the son of an immigrant." Respectfully, who cares whether USCIS Director L. Francis Cissna "is the son of an immigrant" or not?

This is not a flippant statement. That the "son of an immigrant" (or even a former "immigrant" him- or herself) is the director of USCIS should be unexceptional to those who (like me, and purportedly NPR and the Washington Post) understand that this is a "nation of immigrants". Logically, a circumstance under which the "son of an immigrant" is director of the agency charged with adjudicating the vast majority of immigration benefits of the United States just reinforces the fact that we are "a nation of immigrants", doesn't it?

Unfortunately, "cool reflection" is generally the first casualty of reporting on any immigration action, regardless of how trifling, taken by the Trump administration. As I told a reporter for the Washington Post in connection with the president's travel restrictions: "Your impression of it is very likely driven by your impression of the president. ... Very few people ever talk about whether this is a good policy or a bad policy." The same appears to be true of the press in its opinion of any Trump immigration policy.