The Truth about Cissna's 'Invisible Wall'

By Jessica M. Vaughan on September 24, 2018

Politico has published what it advertises as a "profile" of USCIS Director Francis Cissna. But it's only partly about Cissna; the real purpose of the article seems to be to present a list of policy changes implemented by USCIS that the author believes are part of a nefarious scheme to slash legal immigration by putting up unreasonable obstacles for anyone hoping to immigrate or obtain a work visa. This theme has appeared in other outlets as well (see here and here, for example).

The title and subtitle of Politico's article, written by Ted Hesson, reads:

The Man Behind Trump's 'Invisible Wall'

USCIS Director Lee Francis Cissna is the son of an immigrant, the son-in-law of a refugee and a man who says he's just obsessed with the fair implementation of laws. So why is he making them so much harder for immigrants?

Hesson then devotes thousands of words to presenting a litany of mean-sounding policy changes attributed to Cissna (naturally in cahoots with White House advisor Stephen Miller, another favorite arch-villain of the press).

It's one thing to hold political appointees accountable for the policies they implement, but these policy changes are thoroughly mischaracterized by Hesson to create the impression that Cissna is waging some kind of war on immigrants.

In fact, Cissna's goal has been to reduce fraud and abuse of our legal immigration and visa programs, not to choke off the flow of immigrants and guestworkers. Cissna wants to shed the agency's recent reputation as a giant rubber-stamping operation cranking out benefits, oblivious to fraud and national security threats. The agency's reputation suffered mightily under Cissna's immediate predecessors (one of whom is quoted in the article) for its "get to yes" culture and concerns about corruption. Indeed, I once saw an editorial cartoon with Mr. Magoo at a desk with the name plate reading "USCIS".

Hesson completely ignores the numerous changes Cissna has made that actually make it easier for immigrants to fill out and submit their applications, from creating e-checklists, to allowing credit card payments in more situations, to providing more accurate public listings of processing times. Further, USCIS is now much more transparent than it used to be, with periodic data dumps to the website of administrative statistics and policy memoranda that formerly were available only through the cumbersome FOIA process — which shows Cissna clearly isn't afraid of letting the world know what the agency is doing under his leadership.

To correct the record, here are just a few of the mischaracterizations, with Hesson's description in quotations followed by my comments:

  1. "[T]he establishment of a 'denaturalization task force' that pledges to investigate immigration fraud and strip away citizenship in such cases — something that's historically been reserved for serious criminals or terrorists." In fact, this initiative started under the Obama administration and was documented in an OIG report. It began with a limited group of cases involving people who obtained naturalization using an alias and who had prior criminal convictions or other problems that perhaps should have disqualified them. Why wouldn't we want to strip citizenship from people who obtained it through fraud?
  2. "[A] new memo that allows visa officers to deny applications without first requesting more evidence or notifying an applicant." This description implies that officers can arbitrarily deny applications without grounds. In fact, it applies only to a limited set of applications, in which applicants have not provided the evidence required to support them. Among other scenarios that waste the government's time and prevent the timely adjudication of qualified applications, this will end the practice of filing skeletal applications that are filed just to buy time in the United States, even when they know the application will not be approved. This rule benefits the legitimate applicants.
  3. "[A] controversial proposed regulation that could prevent immigrants from obtaining green cards if they or their family members have used a public benefit, which is expected to include everything from food stamps to health insurance programs." The rule will prevent applicants, not immigrants (who have already been legally admitted), from obtaining green cards if they have been largely dependent on public welfare programs, or who are likely to become dependent. This has been the law since 1882.
  4. "From his perch atop USCIS, he's issued a steady stream of policy changes and regulations that have transformed his agency into more of an enforcement body and less of a service provider." This is nonsense. It is completely false that now the majority of USCIS activity is "enforcement" rather than granting benefits.
  5. "[T]ightening and reworking regulations and guidance that make it harder to come to the U.S. as an immigrant or temporary worker." Again, baloney. Hesson fails to name a single change that makes it "harder" to come as an immigrant. On the contrary, as discussed above, under Cissna the agency has made numerous changes to make the process easier for applicants. It has only become harder for people trying to get benefits through fraud or who are marginally qualified. The temporary worker program reforms are focused mainly on employers who are abusing the system, who also abuse temporary workers, as well as bypass U.S. workers.
  6. "But the policy revisions could reshape legal immigration flows in the coming years, as visa applications that might have passed muster a few years ago are rejected." How can reforms aimed at reducing fraud "reshape legal immigration flows"? There is a lot of fraud, but it's not like we would run out of applicants if we caught all of it. Fraud should not be tolerated in order to maintain the current "shape" of legal immigration, whatever that means. Besides, the number of admissions in the family preference, employment, and lottery categories, which make up almost half of legal immigration, is set by Congress. USCIS efforts to weed out fraudulent or unqualified applications do not affect the total, because there are such long waiting lists that there always will be another qualified applicant to take the slot, and most applicants are qualified. Why should bona fide applicants have to wait longer because ineligible applications are not screened out?
  7. "[B]ut whose interpretations consistently trend in the direction of making life harder for people who want to come and stay in the United States." Again, why would we want it to be easier for fraudsters to come here?
  8. "The updated guidance — the implementation of which has been postponed — orders officials to issue a "notice to appear" when a visa applicant is denied and lacks legal status." Why shouldn't we issue such a notice to failed benefits applicants who lack other legal status? Should we just ignore the fact that they are here illegally, and not initiate deportation proceedings? They will have a chance to make their case to an immigration judge and might even win status, or they might be ordered removed, but they will get their due process. If the NTA were not issued, the failed applicants probably would just stay here illegally. How is that better? And this is not a new policy — it was the policy for many years before it was changed well into the Obama administration.
  9. "And the changes made at USCIS, which have pushed visa officers toward the law enforcement space…" Actually it's Congress that gave USCIS adjudicators the authority to issue NTAs (Notice to Appear, the first step in the deportation process), not Cissna.
  10. "[R]emoving second chances for some applicants." Hesson forgot to mention which applicants — it's those who didn't provide the material required to prove their eligibility. Under U.S. law, the burden is on applicants to prove their eligibility, not on the government.
  11. "A core provision of the regulation could block an immigrant from obtaining a green card if the person or a family member receives a wide range of public benefits, according to leaked drafts of the measure." Again, the proposed rule is about dependency, not one-time use, and this is clear in the leaked drafts of the proposal. Hesson then states, without citation or detail, that around the country poor immigrants are not asking for the free formula for their babies because of it. If that is actually happening, it is because of this kind of irresponsible reporting about the proposal — meaning that responsibility for those starving babies is on Hesson and others who describe is so misleadingly, not Cissna.

Readers can hear Francis Cissna describe his vision for USCIS and some of these policy reforms in his own words in this CIS Newsmaker interview.