I had the privilege of serving as director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services from 2014 to 2017. One of my favorite activities was to travel to our offices throughout the United States, meeting staff members and speaking to them about their work. One day, I might be observing a naturalization interview; another day, I might be speaking to an officer in the Fraud Detection and National Security directorate about a marriage-fraud investigation.
One day that stands out particularly was a 2017 graduation ceremony for newly sworn in USCIS officers at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center in Charleston, South Carolina. A senior supervisor, a veteran who was among the many proud “legacy INS” professionals in the agency, reminded the new adjudicators of a simple formula for their new jobs: “the right benefit for the right person at the right time.”
That motto perfectly summed up the strong sense of professionalism among the officers in the agency. While some immigration lawyers complained of a “culture of no” for immigration decisions, and some members of Congress complained of a “culture of yes,” the many officers I observed and met staunchly maintained a commitment to the right answer based on law and the facts.
This past week, USCIS issued an updated mission statement: “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.”
The new mission statement replaced this one: “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.”
Ensuring “the promise of the United States as a nation of immigrants” will no longer be the mission of the agency charged with administering our immigration laws and processing applications for permanent residence and citizenship.
Not surprisingly, the new mission statement is a faithful articulation of the Trump administration’s policies grounded in the view that immigrants, with a few carefully defined exceptions, are a threat and burden to the United States, rather than the very essence of what has made our country a beacon and example to the rest of the world.
Regardless of the Trump administration’s rhetoric, we are, always have been and, I am optimistic enough to say even in these times, always will be a “nation of immigrants.”
We will lose much materially and spiritually if we abandon that heritage. Immigrants themselves, their children and their grandchildren have written too much of our nation’s glorious story to now be portrayed as grifters and predators. As we speak, 28 percent of all new businesses are started by immigrants, a disproportionate share. Drive around any of our immigrant hubs, whether Langley Park, Md., North Miami or the Queens borough of New York, and it will not take long for you to feel the work ethic and energy that for centuries have fueled our success as a country.
Immigrants from every country and from every socioeconomic tier work without tire to secure a better future for their children, and in so doing give rise to the many great success stories that belong to new Americans — and the even more success stories of first-generation Americans who have stood on their parents’ shoulders and outworked and outstrived their way to success in every field. Some of these new Americans might not qualify to come here under what President Trump and his administration call “merit-based immigration,” but we had better not forget that they have always been one of the pillars of our success and identity as a nation. They have shown their merit time and time again, in every generation.
Neither the new mission statement nor the one it replaced should obscure the plain fact that integrity and sound and honest review of cases have always been and continue to be touchstones of USCIS’s professional culture, one that political leadership regardless of party has always known to honor and nurture. That culture will survive a change in mission statement.
And if the idea is that there’s some conflict between being a secure nation and a nation of immigrants, my experience running USCIS proves otherwise. The agency’s responsibility and duties to ensure the integrity of the immigration system and for “securing the homeland” grew — significantly — under the prior mission statement. We strengthened refugee vetting procedures to ensure that all available relevant intelligence and law enforcement data was acquired for case review. We added officers to examine social media posting of a number of applicants for admission to the United States.
USCIS was able to fulfill its obligation to safeguard the integrity of the immigration system and protect the American people, while still “providing accurate and useful information to our customers,” an essential element of fairness. Every file, whether that of a Muslim refugee fleeing war in the Middle East or a high-skilled worker seeking an employment visa to work in Silicon Valley, contained the story of a family’s hopes and dreams — as has been the case throughout our history. Whether in its customer call centers, at InfoPass counters in field offices or through grants to assist those preparing to take the citizenship test, USCIS workers had the wisdom to recognize that they were administering a complex, bewildering and sometimes even frightening regulatory scheme. USCIS was also able to advance the patriotic work of promoting an awareness and understanding of citizenship.
Mission statements will be written, replaced and rewritten. History, on the other hand, is cumulative. Our choice now is whether we use bureaucracy to avoid the future, or whether we continue our tradition of offering freedom and opportunity to those with the work ethic and love of family to embrace it. I, as one American, one child of immigrants, vote for the latter.
Rodríguez served as director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services from 2014 to 2017.