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Immigration 101: Who is Ken Cuccinelli, Acting Director of USCIS

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Originally published June 7, 2019; last updated September 18, 2019

Ken Cuccinelli is a former Virginia attorney general and the current Acting Director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). He is an anti-immigrant extremist who is prone to dangerous and disgusting rhetoric immigrants. He once compared immigration to pest control, saying that Washington, D.C.’s pest control policies were worse than immigration because you could not “break up rat families” or “even kill them”. He also helped found an organization whose mission statement involved “securing our borders against unlawful invasion”. Additionally, Cuccinelli has a history of anti-Muslim and anti-LGBT positions.

In 2013, Cuccinelli was a candidate for Virginia governor, and made a half-hearted attempt to moderate his immigration positions in the general election. But voters saw right through him, and his anti-immigrant past helped spell his defeat. After the loss, he became a far-right commentator who has spent the last several years on TV praising Trump’s ineffective immigration policies. It’s been speculated that Cuccinelli’s regular public defense of Trump is how he ended up being nominated for an Administration job, something Cuccinelli shares with ICE chief nominee Mark Morgan.  

Once tapped, Cuccinelli wasted no time expanding the politicization and weaponization of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), a project that his predecessor, Lee Francis Cissna, worked on before he was purged out of the Department of Homeland Security. Cuccinelli is turning USCIS away from its traditional role as a relatively low-drama agency — responsible for processing applications for potential green card holders and U.S. citizens — instead making it into another arm of Trump’s anti-immigrant force.  

In the short time he has been on the job, Cuccinelli has attempted to deny green-card status to working-class immigrants, deport immigrants facing life-threatening illnesses, and make it more difficult for children of U.S. citizens who are born abroad to qualify for citizenship. But his efforts have been met with strong criticism and many lawsuits, and it is unclear which (if any) of these policies will take effect. We do know, however, that Cuccinelli is now one of the new faces of the Administration’s cruel anti-immigrant policies, a role which seems to have propelled him into Trump’s inner circle.

Fortunately, Cuccinelli may not hold onto his position for long, and not just because of the revolving door inside the Trump Administration. A lawsuit filed by Democracy Forward and the Catholic Legal Immigration Network, Inc., is challenging Cuccinelli’s appointment as a violation of the Federal Vacancies Reform Act. If successful, the lawsuit could not only remove him from his acting directorship but also invalidate some of the cruel administrative changes he has made during his tenure. 

His clearly bigoted history and lack of qualifications for the job could also prevent him from being formally approved by the Senate. Even Republican Senators appear ready to reject him, as Cuccinelli has spent much of his career attacking Senate Republicans for perceived weakness on conservative issues. He has repeatedly tried to oust Mitch McConnell as Senate Majority Leader, which is now backfiring as McConnell has reportedly vowed to block Cuccinelli from any position requiring confirmation.

Even if his tenure is short, Cuccinelli is still in a position to do great harm as the acting head of USCIS. As Danielle Spooner, the president of the union representing all USCIS employees, told CNN in response to reports of Cuccinelli’s nomination:

It has become clear that the goal of this Administration is to end immigration altogether. How better to do that then by appointing as the leader of USCIS someone who knows nothing about immigration, adjustment of status or naturalization, and whose sole purpose is to destroy the agency that grants these benefits.

Below is a brief history of Cuccinelli’s record on immigration before and during his time as acting director of USCIS.

Cuccinelli as Acting Director of USCIS 

Donald Trump appointed Ken Cuccinelli to be acting director of USCIS on June 10, 2019, and Cuccinelli has been continuing the agency’s transformation into an arm of the Trump Administration’s anti-immigrant agenda. In fact, in his first week on the job, Cuccinelli emailed asylum officers, pushing them to deny more asylum claims from migrants on the border. According to him, USCIS agents needed to do their “part to help stem the crisis and better secure the homeland.” “This is an unbelievable threat and not something a director would normally ever send,” said Ur Jaddou of DHS Watch and former chief counsel at USCIS. 

The following month, in July, Cuccinelli issued a new directive that dramatically reduced the ability for asylum seekers to prepare for their “credible fear” hearing. Crucially, this move would limit the time asylum seekers have to acquire a lawyer, and reversed a long-standing rule requiring asylum officers to wait at least 48 hours after detention before conducting the initial “credible fear” screening. This time gave the asylum seeker opportunities to contact legal counsel and prepare their case. As Ur Jaddou told Buzzfeed, this rule change “is another way to limit the process — that will lead to fewer positive credible fear interviews [and] more deportations.”  

Then on August 12, Cuccinelli rolled out changes to “public charge” rule, making it harder for families to obtain green cards if they have ever received public assistance. As Jamil Smith at Rolling Stone wrote, the changes constituted a “wealth test” for all immigrants, and changed the U.S. immigration system to advantage wealthier immigrants. Though nearly 20 states immediately filed suit against the change, if the rule goes into effect if could shut the door on thousands of hard-working immigrant families — or force them to choose between staying in the U.S. and receiving the assistance (such as housing or nutrition) they need. Reporting by the Washington Post found that the rule change would “dramatically” reduce family-based legal immigration, and that “legal” immigration would slashed in half altogether by the rule change. 

Cuccinelli made no effort to hide what the public rule change was about. Appearing on NPR to defend the change, Cuccinelli attempted to rewrite the Emma Lazarus poem affixed to the Statue of Liberty, saying that a better version would read, “Give me your tired and your poor who can stand on their own two feet and who will not become a public charge.” As John Oliver and others have pointed out, Cuccinelli’s change fundamentally alters the whole point of the poem. It doesn’t recognize that “America, at its best, isn’t about who you are when you arrive, but it is about who you want to become.”

Cuccinelli went even further in defending his rewrite on CNN, claiming that the poem “of course” only referenced “people coming from Europe” — implying that America was never supposed to be open to immigrants from anywhere else. Of course, Cuccinelli’s own Irish and Italian immigrant ancestors were viewed as undesirable immigrants at the time they came to the U.S., despite Cuccinelli’s citing of their story to justify the public rule change.

Cuccinelli has repeatedly used his new position to double-down on Donald Trump’s false claims. On July 7, after Trump repeatedly made unrealistic claims about massive nationwide raids on undocumented immigrants, Cuccinelli appeared on CBS News echoing his boss. He said, ICE — an agency he does not oversee — would be rounding up “approximately one million people,” an event that never happened. Cuccinelli also often repeats the Trump lie that many asylum seekers make “fraudulent claims.”

After the U.S. Supreme Court’s surprise decision in September allowing for the implementation of Trump’s asylum ban, Cuccinelli went on CBS News to make clear that the ban a deterrent for future would-be asylum seekers. “It will be a deterrent for some people, particularly those who were going to be coming and claiming what are clearly false asylum claims,” Cuccinelli told CBS News. Experts have repeatedly said that migrants seeking asylum are facing life-threatening conditions at home, and that deterrence is both cruel and ineffective. 

Cuccinelli’s USCIS has also tried to strip terminally ill immigrants of protections and place them into deportation proceedings. The New York Times reported that — without public announcement — USCIS eliminated a program allowing immigrants to avoid deportation while they or their relatives undergo life-saving medical treatment in the U.S. They highlighted the story of Maria Isabel Bueso, who came to the U.S. when she was seven years old, invited by doctors interested in running a clinical trial for her rare genetic disease. Over the years, Bueso helped develop life-saving treatments, became an advocate for the chronically ill, went to graduate school, and became a dance instructor. But suddenly in August, Bueso received a letter telling her to leave the country within 33 days or face deportation, a letter her doctor described as “death sentence.” Fortunately, massive public outcry appears to have forced the Administration to reconsider the elimination of protections from some sick immigrants.   

In another dramatic change from USCIS, Cuccinelli has tried to make it more difficult to obtain citizenship for children born to active service members who are stationed abroad. The sudden change prompted outrage and confusion on the part of advocates for service members. “By targeting the citizenship of children, the administration has made service abroad — an already intense, stressful environment — even more difficult for military families to navigate,” said Jeremy Butler, the chief executive of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, to the New York Times. But again, widespread outcry forced a clarification from Cuccinelli over his agency’s threatening policy changes.  

In the days before Cuccinelli’s attempted rule change for deployed servicemembers, Trump again floated his desire to rewrite the Constitution by fiat and remove birthright citizenship protections from children both in the U.S. When asked about Trump’s efforts the following month, Cuccinelli claimed such a plan was not in the “in the near future,” while leaving the possibility open. “I think it ought to be addressed in such a manner that citizenship is reserved for people who are here legally, but how Congress chooses to do that is — there’s a lot of ways to do that,” he said.

Cuccinelli supported extreme and ineffective anti-immigrant policies

As a state senator in Virginia from 2002 to 2010, Cuccinelli consistently tried to deny affordable college tuition for undocumented students in the state, and even supported a bill that would have completely barred undocumented immigrants from attending Virginia colleges and universities. He supported legislation allowing local law enforcement to search rental homes thought to be housing undocumented immigrants. In 2008, Cuccinelli sponsored legislation that would have forced employees to speak English in the workplace at the risk of being denied jobless benefits.

As Attorney General from 2010 to 2014, Cuccinelli wrote an amicus brief in support of Arizona’s extreme, anti-immigrant, SB 1070 law. Going further still, AG Cuccinelli wrote a legal opinion arguing that Virginia law enforcement officers could check the immigration status of anyone they stopped or arrested. And in 2012, he joined with Arizona in their lawsuit to defend their show-me-your-papers law after the Obama Administration sued the state; the law was eventually completely overturned by courts.

In 2015, Cuccinelli accused Obama of encouraging “an invasion” of undocumented immigrants. More recently, Cuccinelli suggested that states should use “war powers” to turn back migrants, because (as he claimed) there is no “due process” when invoking war powers: “you just point them back across the river and let them swim for it,” he told Breitbart in 2018.

Cuccinelli worked with and praised white nationalists

In September 2019, the Center for Immigration Studies, a hate group, announced they were hosting a conversation with Ken Cuccinelli as part of their “Immigration Newsmaker” series. This will be the first time Cuccinelli will sit down with a hate group as a member of the Trump Administration, but he has a long history of palling around with white nationalist and anti-immigrant hate groups. 

“Steve King is one of my very favorite congressmen,” said Cuccinelli in 2012. “I probably spend more time with Steve on Capitol Hill than anybody else.” Cuccinelli was referring to infamous Congressman from Iowa, who has made so many insanely racist comments that he was stripped of all his committee assignments and essentially abandoned by his fellow party members. King and Cuccinelli share a type of xenophobia that, among other things, has led both to comparing immigrants to animals.

Around 2007, Cuccinelli helped to found the nativist group State Legislators for Legal Immigration (SLLI). Their mission was to eliminate “all economic attractions and incentives (including, but not limited to: public benefits, welfare, education and employment opportunities) for illegal aliens, as well as securing our borders against unlawful invasion.” They further claimed that this so-called “invasion” justified invoking war powers under the Constitution. This extreme and misleading rhetoric is now amplified by Donald Trump and echoed by white nationalist terrorists such as the mass shooter from El Paso, Texas.

In a press release by SLLI in 2007, Cuccinelli promoted the false and fear-mongering tactic of claiming immigrants that immigrants bring crime, writing that “[p]orous borders and lax immigration enforcement have left us vulnerable not only to terrorist attacks but to increasing levels of crime in our communities.” In reality, overwhelming amounts of evidence show the opposite to be true — immigrants are less likely to commit crimes than native-born Americans. 

SLLI is deeply connected to a network of other anti-immigrant groups: it is the legislative arm of the hate group FAIR. Founded in 1979 by the white nationalist John Tanton, FAIR has long been publicly known for their nativism, racist comments, and shoddy fake studies. Tanton also helped found the Center for Immmigration Studies.

In 2008, SLLI began targeting the 14th Amendment, which has guaranteed birthright citizenship for 150 years. In a preview of Cuccinelli’s Trump-era support for doing away with the 14th Amendment, Cuccinelli as a state senator was the chief sponsor of an anti-birthright citizenship bill, and pushed Congress to take action against what he called “anchor babies”. This attack on the 14th Amendment went nowhere, but this didn’t stop SLLI and FAIR from another joint effort against birthright citizenship in 2011.

After the news broke that Cuccinelli might join the Trump Administration, FAIR in May 2019 praised him as having a “proper outlook” on the issue of immigration and for appearing to be “on board with the general agenda of the administration; he certainly checks all the boxes.” And though Mark Krikorian from the Center for Immigration Studies (CIS) was initially “cautiously optimistic” about Cuccinelli, he is now pleased with Cuccinelli’s restrictionist fervor. CIS and Krikorian were likely especially pleased by Cuccinelli’s change to the “public charge” rule, a goal of CIS’ since at least 2001.  

On September 13, 2019, Cuccinelli tweeted support for far-right commentator Michelle Malkin from his official USCIS account. Malkin had targeted Montgomery County, Maryland as a so-called “sanctuary city”, in an outlandish publicity stunt to promote her new book. Cuccinelli then retweeted the full live stream of Malkin’s pro-ICE rally in Montgomery County. Malkin is close to hate groups like FAIR and featured former Trump national security aide, Sebastian Gorka at her rally. Gorka has his own long history of palling around with racists and Islamophobes.   

Cuccinelli supported anti-Muslim activists and anti-LGBT bigotry

In 2014, Cuccinelli praised a talk by Brigitte Gabriel, one of the most prominent anti-Muslim leaders in the country. Gabriel leads ACT for America, which the Southern Poverty Law Center classifies as a hate group. Cuccinelli voiced his support online for comments made by Gabriel that compared Muslims to Nazis. On numerous other occasions, Cuccinelli has also signed letters alongside Gabriel in support of far-right causes, including a push to fund Trump’s unnecessary border wall.

Cuccinelli also has a long history of being vocal about his anti-LGBT ideas. He opposed the Supreme Court decision legalizing same-sex marriage, calling it “tyranny” and claiming that it was not “good for our country.” In 2013, he flat-out called “homosexual acts…intrinsically wrong” and said they were “not healthy to society.” And as Virginia’s Attorney General, he advised the state’s public colleges against adopting nondiscrimination policies to protect their LGBT students.

Cuccinelli’s past anti-LGBT rhetoric should be concerning in its own right. But if his bigoted views end up informing policy, they could potentially have deadly consequences for LGBT migrants, who already face additional dangers in migration and immigration detention, Cuccinelli’s bigoted beliefs could make their situation worse.

Also see:

Mother Jones: Ken Cuccinelli Scrubs His Immigration Hardliner Past