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Immigration 101: Who is Ken Cuccinelli, Trump’s Pick to Lead USCIS


Ken Cuccinelli is an anti-immigrant extremist who once compared immigration to pest control and has a history of anti-Muslim and anti-LGBT positions. He’s a former state Senator, a former Attorney General for Virginia, a failed gubernatorial candidate, and hasn’t really been relevant since 2013. Yet Donald Trump wants him to run the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), the paper-processing arm of the federal government’s immigration-related agencies.

Cuccinelli was a Virginia state senator from 2002 until 2010, when he became the state Attorney General. His nativism was on full display over these years, a reality that dogged him as he ran for governor in 2013. Though he made a half-hearted attempt to moderate his position in the general election, 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 a job, something Cuccinelli shares with ICE chief nominee Mark Morgan.     

Cuccinelli was initially floated as Trump’s immigration czar; however, in late May, Trump appeared to change his mind. Cuccinelli’s nomination to USCIS is no sure thing, either — as of this writing, no formal announcement has been made for Cuccinelli’s nomination.

Having an extremist like Cuccinelli lead USCIS would be incredibly damaging. Historically, USCIS has been a relatively low-drama agency, responsible for processing applications for potential green card holders and U.S. citizens. But Trump — and USCIS’ former director Lee Francis Cissna, before he was purgedweaponized USCIS, delaying immigration approvals and increasing denials, stripping protections from DACA and TPS recipients, making HB-1 visas more difficult to obtain, and sending asylum seekers to wait in Mexico.

As Danielle Spooner, the president of the union representing all USCIS employees, told CNN in response to Cuccinelli’s possible 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 short history of Cuccinelli’s record on immigration.

Cuccinelli supported extreme and ineffective anti-immigrant policies

As a state senator in Virginia, Cuccinelli consistently tried to deny affordable college tuition for undocumented students in the state. He 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 2010, 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, 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.  

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

“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.” The infamous Congressman from Iowa was recently stripped of all his committee assignments after suggesting that white supremacy was not a reprehensible idea, and has long been known for his extremely racist comments. 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.” 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 the “[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.  

SLLI has also been described as the legislative arm of the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), a hate group. Founded in 1979 by the white nationalist John Tanton, FAIR has long been publicly known for their nativism, racist comments, and shoddy fake studies.

In 2008, SLLI began to attack the 14th Amendment to Constitution, which has guaranteed birthright citizenship for 150 years — and long been a target for FAIR and other nativists. Cuccinelli then became the chief sponsor of a bill to strip the U.S.-born children of undocumented immigrants of their right to citizenship, 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 Administration, FAIR 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.”

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.

Fortunately, Cuccinelli may never secure a position in the Administration. He has not been formally nominated, he has a clearly bigoted history, he lacks the qualifications for the job, and Republican Senators appear ready to reject him. 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, efforts which are now backfiring as McConnell has reportedly vowed to block Cuccinelli from any position requiring confirmation.

Also see:

Mother Jones: Ken Cuccinelli Scrubs His Immigration Hardliner Past