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Congressional Hispanic Caucus Denounces USCIS Acting Director Cuccinelli’s Inappropriate Efforts to Further Immigration Enforcement

Jul 31, 2019
Press Release
Cuccinelli’s policies have made it difficult to know where USCIS ends and ICE begins

WASHINGTON— Congressional Hispanic Caucus (CHC) Leadership called on U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) Acting Director Ken Cuccinelli to meet with the Caucus to discuss his leadership of the agency. During his short tenure thus far, Cuccinelli has used USCIS resources to support President Trump’s deportation agenda, called on his staff to “volunteer” their time on ICE activities, and undermined this service-oriented agency to further the President’s political agenda. At the same time, the USCIS immigration case backlog has exceeded 2.3 million, clearly demonstrating that resources are needed for the agency’s primary purpose.

In May, the CHC met with then-USCIS Director Francis L. Cissna to discuss how his agency’s policy implementations have hindered the processing of cases for US residents and immigrants, worsened the immigration case backlog, and furthered the enforcement of President Trump’s anti-immigrant agenda. Director Cissna resigned the following day. On May 31st, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) agreed to open an investigation into the backlog of immigration cases of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) following a request from the CHC and House Democrats to ensure that the agency was fulfilling its mandate and ensure good governance. The request was signed by over 80 House Democrats.

The letter to Acting Director Cuccinelli was led by Congressional Hispanic Caucus Chair Joaquin Castro (TX-20) and signed by Congressional Hispanic Caucus leadership members Congressman Ruben Gallego (AZ-07), Congresswoman Nanette Diaz Barragán (CA-44), Congressman Adriano Espaillat (NY-13), and Congresswoman Veronica Escobar (TX-16), as well as CHC Immigration Task Force Chairwoman Linda T. Sánchez (CA-38).

“We are writing to request a meeting with you regarding our concern—heightened by recent actions taken under your leadership—that USCIS now functions as an extension of President Trump’s immigration enforcement regime instead of the service-oriented immigration benefits agency that Congress intended. As USCIS’s own website observes, the law creating USCIS charged it with ‘focusing exclusively on the administration of benefit applications,’ while assigning immigration enforcement responsibilities to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Yet during your tenure as Acting Director, your agency’s policies and rhetoric have made it difficult to determine where USCIS ends and ICE begins,” the Members wrote. “The Congressional Hispanic Caucus will not stand idly by as we watch your agency divert resources toward immigration enforcement and implement policies that systematically exclude vulnerable families from immigration benefits in the United States for which they would normally qualify. We hope you will find time in the coming weeks to meet with our members and collaboratively discuss a path forward for realigning USCIS with its statutory mission.”

Full text of the letter follows and can be found here.

Dear Acting Director Ken Cuccinelli,

On behalf of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, we are writing to request a meeting with you regarding our concern—heightened by recent actions taken under your leadership—that USCIS now functions as an extension of President Trump’s immigration enforcement regime instead of the service-oriented immigration benefits agency that Congress intended. As USCIS’s own website observes, the law creating USCIS charged it with “focusing exclusively on the administration of benefit applications,” while assigning immigration enforcement responsibilities to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Yet during your tenure as Acting Director, your agency’s policies and rhetoric have made it difficult to determine where USCIS ends and ICE begins.

To begin with, we are alarmed that measures carried out under your leadership are shifting resources toward immigration enforcement rather than reducing USCIS’s crisis-level case processing delays.   In particular, we were alarmed by reports that on July 17—one day after USCIS officials testified under oath before Congress that the agency is “taking advantage of the resources we have” to decrease case processing delays—USCIS leadership asked agency personnel to volunteer to perform work for ICE at ICE field offices throughout the country. This email conveys the message that USCIS is more committed to detention and deportation efforts than processing immigration cases on time. Further, it is reprehensible that USCIS leadership would ask its staff—who are funded by application fees, often paid by immigrant families--to assume enforcement roles that could involve the targeting of those same families.

Moreover, instead of focusing on USCIS’s growing case backlog during your appearances on multiple news shows, you tout ICE raids along with other enforcement initiatives. This rhetoric is both baffling and inappropriate, as these areas plainly fall outside of USCIS’s legal authority. Indeed, your decision to emphasize the work of ICE during these nationally televised events raises the question of which agency’s mission USCIS is aiming to fulfill.  We were also alarmed to see reports that you are supportive of a proposed pilot program called “Operation Safe Return”, which would fast-track the deportation of vulnerable families. Much like other policies by the Trump Administration, this program would undermine due process safeguards in our asylum system and could result in the expedited deportation of numerous families back to deadly conditions in their home countries.

We also believe that the Asylum and Internal Relocation Guidance you issued on July 26 effectively urges Asylum Officers to deny asylum to families for failing to internally relocate in their home country, even when such relocation could have resulted in further persecution and even death. Many of these families have escaped the most dangerous countries in the world—plagued by high levels of homicides, kidnappings, and sexual assaults—where gangs, drug traffickers, and other persecutors operate nationwide. Yet the July 26 guidance appears to assume that migrant families would prefer to embark on a perilous and sometimes deadly 2,000-mile journey to seek asylum in the United States when they could instead just relocate safely in their home countries.  This represents yet another measure suggesting that USCIS is now more dedicated to deporting applicants than fairly adjudicating their cases.

Furthermore, we are concerned that USCIS will make misguided revisions to the citizenship test. Already, USCIS is instituting a range of policies that function as harmful barriers to naturalization. We are alarmed that changes to the citizenship test could further prevent deserving immigrants from becoming U.S. citizens. 

The Congressional Hispanic Caucus will not stand idly by as we watch your agency divert resources toward immigration enforcement and implement policies that systematically exclude vulnerable families from immigration benefits in the United States for which they would normally qualify. We hope you will find time in the coming weeks to meet with our members and collaboratively discuss a path forward for realigning USCIS with its statutory mission.

Sincerely,

# # #

The Congressional Hispanic Caucus (CHC), founded in December 1976, is organized as a Congressional Member organization, governed under the Rules of the U.S. House of Representatives. The CHC is dedicated to voicing and advancing, through the legislative process, issues affecting Hispanics in the United States, Puerto Rico and U.S. Territories.