In a new piece for Politico, Ted Hesson takes a hard look at USCIS Director Lee Francis Cissna, who has been quietly but aggressively carrying out Trump’s immigration policies and serving as an integral part of the administration’s plan to turn the admissions and benefits arm of the immigration system into an enforcement-focused component.
Meet one of Stephen Miller’s captains in the drive to keep out and kick out immigrants and refugees.
The article is excerpted below and available here.
This summer, as anger over the separation of migrant families at the border boiled over, and the abolition of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) became a rallying cry for left-leaning Democrats, a number of less scrutinized, more arcane reforms were quietly working their way into the most foundational laws governing U.S. immigration.
One was the 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. Another was a new memo that allows visa officers to deny applications without first requesting more evidence or notifying an applicant.
Then there’s the refugee program, which has been decimated as the administration slashes the level of admissions and redirects its resources to domestic asylum cases—people who have already arrived safely in the United States. And coming soon: 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 man overseeing these reforms isn’t Stephen Miller, the White House aide publicly known as the architect of Donald Trump’s most restrictionist immigration policies. It’s Lee Francis Cissna, the director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), an agency that not only facilitates legal immigration, but historically celebrates it. Miller is rightly seen as the mastermind of Trump’s far-reaching immigration crackdown, but Cissna is arguably just as important because he makes it happen.
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.”
Ur Jaddou, who was chief counsel at USCIS during the Obama administration and now works as director of DHS Watch, a project of the immigrant advocacy group America’s Voice, views Cissna as part of a broader faction of immigration hawks in the administration. “I think they want to achieve radical changes in immigration policy to take us backwards to a time when immigration to the country was quite limited,” she said. “For many, many years, they’ve tried to do it legislatively and they haven’t been successful.”
Cissna’s broad career experience made him well-positioned to tackle Trump’s ambitious immigration agenda, even with limited management experience. Jessica Vaughan, a policy expert with the Center for Immigration Studies who interacted with Cissna during his detail to Grassley’s office, said the wide-ranging knowledge is necessary for the head of an agency like USCIS “where the devil is in the details.”
And Cissna has gotten big results by tweaking those small details. The administration has admitted just 20,825 refugees with the fiscal year nearly over—less than half of Trump’s already historically low ceiling. The percentage of immigrant visas processed for extended family members fell to 9 percent in 2017, down from 22 percent in the previous year, according to an analysis by the Migration Policy Institute. And new USCIS policies that affect visa processing for foreign workers have also been apparently significant enough to bring on the ire of businesses. Cissna argues that the administration hasn’t made major reforms to the H-1B visa program, which allows employers to hire skilled foreign workers, but his agency has made smaller changes like the suspension of a fast-track processing program for companies and the planned rollback of work authorization for spouses of H-1B visa holders. In a letter in August, 60 CEOs from some of the biggest companies in the world ripped the “arbitrary and inconsistent adjudications” of visa petitions, which they argued have created an environment of uncertainty when it comes to hiring and retaining foreign workers.
Cissna sees no conflict in shaping policies that could have kept his own family out of the United States if they had been implemented several decades ago. “There’s no reason why I shouldn’t be able to advocate for a policy that I think is better for the country, even if it might affect or have affected my own family personally,” he told me.
His family members haven’t questioned his efforts to crack down on immigration, Cissna contends. “When I’m offered the opportunity to actually explain what we’re doing, it makes sense,” he said. “I explain that such and such policy that’s being depicted by the media or by opponents of the policy as some sort of nefarious plot is in fact just an attempt to bring the agency’s actions back in line with the law. And when I explain that, I think people understand it.”
Despite his success at avoiding the spotlight, Cissna has played key roles in Trump’s more controversial immigration policies. During his confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee in May 2017, the nominee denied authoring the first iteration of Trump’s travel ban, which caused chaos in airports worldwide. However, Cissna said he offered technical assistance to the Trump transition team “on a variety of different immigration-related matters.” He also had a role in the “zero-tolerance policy” that led to family separations. When Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced in April that the Justice Department would prosecute all illegal entry cases referred to the DOJ, Cissna and other Homeland Security agency leaders sent a memo to Secretary Nielsen. The memo offered several choices, including the option to refer all suspected border crossers for federal prosecution. DHS adopted the policy, which pushed family separations into overdrive and caused a national uproar.
And today, he doesn’t regret it, even after Trump signed an executive order in June that ended separations by exempting families from the zero-tolerance policy. “If you want unlawful crossings to diminish or end, then there need to be consequences,” he told POLITICO.