It’s often the architects of our nation’s monstrous immigration policies (cough Stephen Miller cough) who are the subject of dramatic news headlines and the target of our much-deserved vitriol. But, as a new Politico profile of Lee Francis Cissna, the director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, reminds us, the bureaucrats who willingly and happily follow the dictates that come from above are equally as appalling (if not more so in their unthinking devotion to carrying out orders).
Politico describes how Cissna, the son of an immigrant from Peru and husband to the daughter of a Palestinian refugee who has steadily worked his way up the ranks of different federal agencies, has been dramatically—and quietly—reshaping immigration policy:
Much less visible than Miller or Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, Cissna has quietly carried out Trump’s policies with a workmanlike dedication. 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. These changes have generated blowback from immigrant advocates, businesses and even some of his own employees. Leon Rodriguez, who served as USCIS director under President Barack Obama, said the agency is sending a message “that this is a less welcoming environment than it may have been before.”
While the travel ban and family separations grabbed headlines, Cissna has waged a quieter war, tightening and reworking regulations and guidance that make it harder to come to the U.S. as an immigrant or temporary worker.
In February, Cissna rewrote the mission statement of the agency which he heads, eliminating a passage that proclaims the U.S. is “a nation of immigrants,” a symbolic move that nonetheless signaled a worrisome shift.
A few months later, Cissna announced the creation of a new denaturalization task force, which would investigate naturalized Americans whom the agency suspected of lying on their citizenship applications. As Masha Gessen wrote in The New Yorker, “It’s the apparent underlying premise that makes this new effort so troublesome: the idea that America is under attack by malevolent immigrants who cause dangerous harm by finding ways to live here.” Gessen continued: “Indeed, the creation of the task force itself is undoing the naturalization of the more than twenty million naturalized citizens in the American population by taking away their assumption of permanence. All of them—all of us—are second-class citizens now.” One of the people Cissna wished to strip citizenship from? A 63-year-old Peruvian-American grandmother, over her minor role in a fraud scheme perpetrated by her boss.
He has also spearheaded other changes, many of which have largely flown under the radar and failed to generate widespread outrage outside of those whose lives will be impacted by them—from new rules that empower USCIS officials to initiate deportation proceedings for a wider number of immigrants to policies that allow USCIS officers to deny visa and green card applications over small errors, without giving applicants an opportunity, as the Obama administration did, to fix them.
And as Politico and others have reported, Cissna plans on pushing through a new regulation—described as “the most controversial regulation to come out of his agency under Trump”—that would prevent people from immigrating to the United States if they’re expected to use public benefits. As Politico writes, “The proposed regulation, which is expected before the midterm elections, would effectively gentrify the legal immigration system, blocking poorer immigrants from obtaining green cards or even from entering the country in the first place.”
People who have known Cissna for years expressed surprise at the turn that he has taken as head of USCIS.
“We’re pretty stunned that a guy who is compassionate, funny, proud of his immigrant mother from Latin America, that he would now be one of the key architects of the seemingly heartless policy of separating families,” Dan Manatt, who attended Georgetown Law School with Cissna, told Politico.
Cissna himself disputes that he bears any animosity towards immigrants.
“I just feel a strong commitment to the law, and to the rule of law,” Cissna told Politico. “None of the things that we’re doing, as I’ve said on numerous public occasions, are guided by any kind of malevolent intent.”
Good to know—he doesn’t hate immigrants, he just loves laws that make their lives as difficult as possible. What a relief.