Saturday, Feb. 24, 2018 | 2 a.m.
The federal agency that issues green cards and grants citizenship to people from foreign countries has stopped characterizing the United States as “a nation of immigrants.”
The director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services informed employees in a letter Thursday that its mission statement had been revised to “guide us in the years ahead.” Gone was the phrase that described the agency as securing “America’s promise as a nation of immigrants.”
The original mission statement said: “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.”
The new version says: “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 agency director, L. Francis Cissna, who was appointed by the Trump administration, described the revision as a “simple, straightforward statement” that “clearly defines the agency’s role in our country’s lawful immigration system and the commitment we have to the American people.”
Cissna did not mention in his letter that he had removed the phrase “nation of immigrants,” which was popularized by a book by President John F. Kennedy and is frequently used to convey America’s multiculturalism.
However, Cissna did note that he had eliminated the word “customers” in describing the foreign nationals whom the agency serves, “a reminder that we are always working for the American people.”
León Rodríguez, director of the agency from 2014 to 2017, said the revision of the mission statement marked “a particularly sad turn of history.”
“We should not forget that under the discarded mission statement, the integrity and national security functions of USCIS grew — dramatically so — showing that we could be both a welcoming nation and a safe one,” Rodríguez said. “We should stop to reflect about the many opportunities that America will lose because of the attitudes reflected in this statement, and ask ourselves whether this is really the country we want to be.”
Ira Mehlman, a spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, which favors restricting immigration, applauded the change.
“A nation of immigrants isn’t a mission statement,” he said, “it’s a slogan.”
“The biggest problem with our immigration system is that it lacks a clear national interest objective,” he added.
As director of USCIS, Cissna has promoted an agenda that reflects the Trump administration’s skeptical and often hard-line stance on immigration. The agency has increased scrutiny of visa applications for foreign workers whom U.S. companies seek to hire; it has changed the asylum application process to discourage people from seeking safe haven in the United States; and it has added steps to the process for foreigners already in the country to obtain legal permanent residency, or a green card.
USCIS reviews petitions of foreign nationals who seek to visit, work, reside and find refuge in the United States. It also processes citizenship applications, which have surged since President Donald Trump won the election in 2016.
In his letter to his staff, Cissna wrote, “We are also responsible for ensuring that those who naturalize are dedicated to this country, share our values, assimilate into our communities, and understand their responsibility to help preserve our freedom and liberty.”
Published posthumously, Kennedy’s “A Nation of Immigrants” highlighted the contribution of immigrants when the country was engulfed in a debate over the direction of its immigration policy.
The phrase appears at least as far back as 1874, in an editorial published in The Daily State Journal of Alexandria, which praised a bill passed by the Virginia Senate appropriating $15,000 to encourage European immigration. “We are a nation of immigrants and immigrants’ children,” it said.
Immigrant advocates today invoke the phrase to remind the country that most Americans have an ancestor who was once a newcomer to the United States.