Whether it is tightening rules for visa holders or making it harder for welfare-dependent immigrants to become United States citizens, the head of the federal agency in charge of citizenship said Wednesday that his agency will serve America.
It is a notion that has become muddled over the past several decades, said U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) Director Francis Cissna.
Speaking at an event hosted by the low-immigration advocacy group Center for Immigration Studies (CIS) in Washington, D.C., Cissna (pictured above) said his employees spend their hours processing the applications and answering the questions of foreigners wanting to come or stay in the U.S.
But he added, “I don’t think we serve them. We serve the people. We serve the American people.”
That, and faithfulness to the law, Cissna said, have guided his actions since he became director in October 2017.
As a result, USCIS has reviewed a number of foreign visas and is redoubling enforcement of regulations and consideration of new ones.
Many of these actions have provoked outrage among Democrats and talking heads in the liberal mainstream media. Perhaps the loudest complaints have focused on a proposal, still in the early stages, to make it harder for immigrants to become citizens if they are not self-supporting.
Cisssna said it hardly is a new idea.
“The goal is not to reduce immigration or, in some diabolical fashion, to shut the door on family-based immigration or anything like that,” he said. “The goal is simply to enforce a ground of inadmissibility to this country that’s been on the books for about 100 years; well, more than 100 years. It’s been on the books in one form or another since the 1880s.”
The current statute bars any foreigner who “in the opinion of the consular officer at the time of application for a visa, or in the opinion of the attorney general at the time of application for admission or adjustment of status, is likely at any time to become a public charge.”
The law then lists several factors to be considered, including “assets, resources, and financial status.”
Cissna said it was one of three main factors considered when immigrants showed up at Ellis Island during a previous immigration wave. But the federal bureaucracy currently offers scant guidance in carrying it out, he said.
“There has never been, as far as I know, any regulation interpreting that — ever,” he said.
Cissna said the closest the government came to that was during Bill Clinton’s presidency. But officials abandoned efforts to write a regulation and instead published a memo instructing government agents to consider only cash benefits provided by the government.
The welfare reform bill passed a short time before that memo severely curtailed cash payments to the poor, but it left in place a number of other anti-poverty programs.
Cissna said it will take many months to go through the normal rule-making process.
“What we want to do is issue proper regulations, open to full public comment … to at long last, interpret what that means. Congress passed that forever ago,” he said. “It’s been sitting on the books. It’s hardly ever been enforced. And if the law is to mean anything, the will of Congress is to mean anything, we should enforce it. It should not be a dead letter. We should enforce it.”
Cissna addressed a number of other topics during the wide-ranging discussion.
On complaints by businesses that they have trouble getting work authorization for international students they want to hire:
“I can completely understand how frustrating that can be to the employer,” he said. But he added that his agency has not made that many changes to programs like the H-1B visa, which allows foreigners to work temporarily in high-skill jobs. Expanding the program would have to come from Congress, he said.
“Whatever we do on that point should be directed towards ensuring that the truly, truly most qualified people that we need in this country get the visas,” he said.
On whether it makes sense, as some advocates suggest, to “staple a green card” to the diplomas of foreign students who graduate from American universities:
Cissna said that also would have to come from Congress. “I would just caution that, you know, other countries have tried this — Australia, most notoriously, a few years ago tried it, and they ended up with these kind of fly-by-night sham schools popping up like mushrooms all over the country to confer quickie degrees on people so that they got into the Australian version of a green card.”
“You could have a person here for a dozen years, and we never talk to them … I don’t think that that’s prudent, and it’s, you know, one of the reasons why this administration is focused on vetting and screening.”
On efforts to increase scrutiny of visa programs:
Cissna noted that refugees are undergoing tougher vetting, under President Donald Trump’s executive order. He said USCIS has stepped up site inspections of visa holders’ addresses and businesses that hire guest workers. He said it amounts to thousands of additional interviews, adding that the effort is getting results.
Cissna said it is possible for a foreigner to enter on a work visa that could be renewed several times.
“You could have a person here for a dozen years, and we never talk to them … I don’t think that that’s prudent, and it’s, you know, one of the reasons why this administration is focused on vetting and screening,” he said.
On what USCIS would like from Congress:
Cissna said lawmakers should clarify the standard for “credible fear” that determines whether foreigners can be admitted to pursue asylum claims. He also called on Congress to amend a trafficking law that makes it harder to deport people from countries other than Mexico and Canada.
Cissna said his agency does not have access to state criminal databases when running background checks. Facilitating that would be useful, he said.
And Cissna offered one simple recommendation: “I would really love it if Congress would just pass a one-sentence provision that would just prohibit American workers from being replaced by H-1B workers. I could draft it myself, probably right now.”