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America’s immigration agency removes “nation of immigrants” from its mission statement

The agency’s head also calls on staff to stop calling immigrants “customers.”

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US Citizenship and Immigration Services isn’t for immigrants anymore.

That’s not an exaggeration. USCIS, the federal agency responsible for issuing visas and green cards and for naturalizing immigrants as US citizens, has unveiled a new mission statement that strips out all references to immigrants themselves — including taking out a line that called the US a “nation of immigrants.” And in an email to agency staff Thursday, as first reported by the Intercept’s Ryan Devereaux, director L. Francis Cissna bragged about the change — saying that USCIS wasn’t supposed to help immigrants and the US citizens seeking to sponsor them, but rather “the American people.”

The new mission statement, and Cissna’s justification, downplays the agency’s commitment to helping immigrants become American citizens and plays up the idea that US citizens attempting to bring their family members to the US don’t count as real Americans whose interests deserve to be protected.

USCIS’s new mission statement doesn’t just reflect the Trump administration’s hawkishness toward legal as well as unauthorized immigration. It encourages the notion that Americanness is a matter of blood and soil, of birth and descent, rather than an idea that anyone can be proud of regardless of where they were born.

Taking “citizenship” out of the mission of Citizenship and Immigration Services

The changes to the USCIS mission statement don’t change the work the agency actually does. But they make a symbolic statement that the Trump administration sees that work differently not just from how the Obama administration did, but from our traditional understanding of what Americanness 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 just provides “immigration benefits,” and “promoting an awareness and understanding of citizenship” is kicked out of the mission entirely.

At the same time as the agency is deemphasizing the part of its job that involves turning immigrants into citizens, its new mission implies that the two groups — immigrants and Americans — are naturally in conflict:

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.

Cissna’s email also told USCIS staff that they’re not supposed to call applicants “customers” anymore because their real customers aren’t immigrants — they’re the American people:

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.” [emphasis added]

It’s an odd statement to make. For one thing, USCIS is the rare federal agency that isn’t primarily funded through taxes — most of the money to run the agency comes from application fees. Immigrants applying for visas, green cards, and citizenship — and the US citizens and companies that have to sponsor some of those applications — are paying USCIS for the services they provide. By a commonsense definition, that’s what a customer is.

But what’s even more jarring than the redefinition of “customer” is the definition of “American.” Cissna’s statement strongly implies that “applicants and petitioners” don’t count as part of the “American people.” That might make sense if he were talking just about people newly coming to the US, or even if he were distinguishing “Americans” from noncitizens. But he’s not.

The “applicants” Cissna refers to include immigrants who are applying for US citizenship — the part of USCIS’s function that got stripped out of the mission statement. Not only does the new mission statement suggest that helping immigrants become Americans is no longer part of USCIS’ job, but by distinguishing “applicants” from “the American people,” it suggests that they can’t.

Furthermore, the overwhelming majority of petitioners for immigrants are US citizens petitioning for family members (or American businesses petitioning for employees). Those citizens may have been born abroad, but they’ve naturalized. They are as American as anyone else.

Does the Trump administration believe immigrants can integrate?

USCIS tends to be the most obscure of the Department of Homeland Security’s three immigration agencies, precisely because it’s the one that doesn’t deal with immigration enforcement (Customs and Border Protection addresses border enforcement; Immigration and Customs Enforcement takes care of interior enforcement). But immigrant rights advocates have been worried about the agency.

Cissna worked for Senate Judiciary Committee Chair (and immigration hawk) Chuck Grassley (R-IA) before being appointed to USCIS. The agency’s ombudsman office, which is supposed to provide transparency to the people who used to be called “customers,” is headed by Julie Kirchner, the former executive director of the Federation for American Immigration Reform — a group whose mission includes reducing legal immigration to the US.

There are already indications that the new leadership is encouraging applications to be processed more slowly and with more scrutiny. In winding down the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, they were more aggressive than Trump’s statements implied. At the same time, there’s been an apparent slowdown in the processing of naturalization applications and of work permits for some categories of immigrants.

By overhauling the mission statement, it’s clear that the new leadership wants to be noticed.