We Are Still a Nation of Immigrants!

Last month, the U. S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) announced a disconcerting change to its official mission statement, and immigration advocates are alarmed about the potential implications. On February 22nd, USCIS director L. Francis Cissna issued an internal employee memo confirming that the agency’s mission statement had been altered, eliminating any reference to the United States being a “nation of immigrants.”

The previous mission statement read, “USCIS secures America’s promise as a nation of immigrants by providing accurate and useful information to our customers, granting immigration and citizenship benefits, promoting an awareness and understanding of citizenship, and ensuring the integrity of our immigration system.” But following Cissna’s edit, the statement now reads, “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.”

Following the release of the revamped mission statement, members of the immigrant community and their supporters were quick to point out that Cissna, a Trump appointee, seems to be echoing the draconian anti-immigration sentiments of our President. Leon Rodriquez, who was the former director of the agency from 2014-2017, during the Obama Administration, noted in an interview with the New York Times that Cissna’s revision of the mission statement is “a particularly sad turn of history.” [See Is America a ‘Nation of Immigrants’? Immigration Agency Says No, by Miriam Jordan, New York Times, 22.Feb.2018.]

Of course, the growing concern throughout the immigration advocacy community isn’t just a matter of altered semantics. The real problem is that Cissna’s edits to the mission statement clearly reflect the policy changes that have been underway since the moment President Trump took office. It was after 9/11 when President George W. Bush created the Department of Homeland Security and, under it, the USCIS was charged with welcoming immigrants to this land of opportunity and serving them as customers and stakeholders, who pay to move through the immigrant process. But now the agency appears focused on insulating the U.S. from the perceived threat of foreigners.

In the current Administration’s view, immigrants are dangerous “others” to be safeguarded against, lest American values be threatened. But what exactly are those values, and whose are they? The mission statement doesn’t specify. But the actions taken over the past year, which include increased scrutiny of petitions for foreign national workers, adding layers of bureaucracy to the already complex lawful permanent residency process, and protracting the application process for asylum seekers speak volumes. This is a far cry from the American values expressed by poet Emma Lazarus and engraved on the plinth upon which the Statue of Liberty stands: “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.”

For a primer on how to be a truly effective USCIS director, Cissna might try reading “A Nation of Immigrants,” a history of immigration by President John F. Kennedy that introduced the book’s titular phrase into our national lexicon. Kennedy’s book, published posthumously in 1964, summarizes how immigrants helped to shape our nation and advocates for the importance of liberalized immigration laws in maintaining our place at the center of the world’s stage. Perhaps then Cissna might recognize America’s values as ones that include the contributions of immigrants to our national identity, and to our destiny as a unique world power.


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