Stop Messing With the Immigration Mission Statement and Start Letting More People In
Joe Biden is just the latest president to tinker with USCIS's mission statement. Watch his deeds, not his words.
This week, United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) announced a new mission statement. Officials in the agency, which oversees visa processing and other key immigration and naturalization functions, scrapped the Trump administration's controversial statement.
"USCIS upholds America's promise as a nation of welcome and possibility with fairness, integrity, and respect for all we serve," the new statement reads. USCIS Director Ur Jaddou told employees in an email that it was more fitting of President Joe Biden's "commitment to an immigration system that is accessible and humane." The new statement comes from employee survey responses, in which USCIS workers proposed new phrasing like "innovation, welcoming, and opportunity."
That tone is a significant departure from USCIS's stated mission under former President Donald Trump. During his presidency, the agency spoke of administering "the nation's lawful immigration system, safeguarding its integrity and promise by efficiently and fairly adjudicating requests for immigration benefits"—all while "protecting Americans, securing the homeland, and honoring our values." Trump's USCIS controversially omitted the long-present phrase "nation of immigrants" from its mission statement.
Anti-immigration groups have cited the Biden administration's new USCIS mission statement as proof that Biden is unserious about vetting immigrants and "protecting Americans," while pro-immigration organizations have praised its message of welcome.
There are two deeper problems lost in this scuffle, however. First, the Biden administration's handling of immigration so far has not matched the kinder, gentler mission statement. Second, the new USCIS mission statement highlights a worrying degree of executive sway over an agency that, by nature, should have consistent functions between presidential administrations.
Biden's USCIS has enacted a symbolic change, judging from the agency's track record in the past year. USCIS faces a massive green card backlog and has struggled to adjudicate applications and dole out visas. The agency let some 80,000 employment-based green cards expire in fiscal year 2021, and thousands of legal migrants were put out of work due to processing delays. Applicant wait times are abysmal—as high as 40 months for certain forms. It's hard for USCIS to claim it's welcoming people being kept out of the country by its own bureaucracy or serving them when it can't process employment authorizations. "Welcome and possibility" can be nearly impossible for migrants to access these days.
None of this even addresses how Biden officials have embraced a more humane mission statement in one component of the U.S. immigration system while also fast-tracking deportations for over 1 million migrants using a policy Trump imposed. Trump's USCIS mission statement may be gone, but the truly harmful instruments of his immigration system are still around. Biden officials have not been consistent in their commitment to an "accessible and humane" immigration system, telling Central American migrants who could benefit from USCIS asylum services, "do not come" to the U.S.
Dig deeper, though, and this week's chatter also raises questions about the deeply politicized nature of USCIS. USCIS deals with legal immigration—its explicit purpose is "to enhance the security and efficiency of national immigration services by focusing exclusively on the administration of benefit applications." It processes citizenship applications, manages family-based immigration, authorizes migrants to work, and oversees humanitarian programs for vulnerable populations. These are relatively mundane duties compared to the functions some of its sister agencies within the Department of Homeland Security perform.
Still, presidents have been able to frame these functions as they see fit, fundamentally shifting the expressed mission of an important agency. USCIS has now had three mission statements since 2005, and all have conveyed different messages. The first highlighted "America's promise as a nation of immigrants" and the importance of "providing accurate and useful information to our customers." The second saw "customers" removed, with Trump officials arguing that such phrasing wrongfully emphasized service to "applicants and petitioners, rather than the American people." The third is short, open-ended, and doesn't include "nation of immigrants" phrasing—despite its omission being so controversial under the Trump administration.
The customizable nature of USCIS should worry anyone who cares about an efficient, effective immigration system that welcomes migrants and helps them get to work in the U.S. Regularly changing mission statements only serve to poorly convey functions to applicants and introduce unpredictability to a government agency that should operate predictably. Unfortunately, this is an agency that presidents have grown used to personalizing, both in action and rhetoric.
So is this week's mission statement adjustment important? Perhaps, but more for what it signals about presidential influence than a fundamental shift within USCIS.