Trump's war on immigration caseworkers needs to end

Trump's war on immigration caseworkers needs to end
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Using every tool it can to restrain immigration, the Trump administration has now taken aim at a little-known but vital resource: immigration caseworkers in congressional offices.

An email sent late last month by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) announced several new requirements, “including a handwritten and notarized signature, even if the immigrant is overseas,” before a congressional office can accept a “privacy release” that allows it to contact federal agencies. This isn’t simply a case of more paperwork clogging up an already backlogged system. This is an unnecessary measure that can put lives at risk.

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Here’s how I know. In February 2014, when I was then a congressman representing New York’s 3rd district, long-building tensions in Ukraine reached a boiling point, creating the conditions for the revolution that culminated with the ousting of then-Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych. Riots and violence spread throughout the country, reaching the city of Vinnytsia, about 160 miles southwest of Kiev.

My congressional office received a distressed call from a constituent in Queens. She and her husband had previously applied for a “green card” for her four-year-old son, Mykhailo, who was living in Vinnytsia with a grandfather who was too old and too infirm to protect him. They feared that the usual 12-month to 14-month process would have exposed Mykhailo to greater threat.

My immigration caseworkers had the boy’s mother sign a privacy release, enabling us to intervene immediately. They contacted USCIS, which requested evidence that the child faced imminent danger. My staff, aided by a determined intern, found and submitted published reports about clashes near Mykhailo’s home. Eight days later, USCIS approved the boy’s green card. Within two months he was reunited with his family in Queens.

His story is a testament to what happens when government works as it should: responsible vetting, efficient decision-making, and a responsive congressional office and federal bureaucracy.

USCIS argues that the new requirements won’t burden immigrants. Yet, surely they would have impacted Mykhailo by adding additional requirements on his infirm grandfather while violence spread near his home. Nor has the Trump administration made a compelling case of any identity fraud involving congressional offices and applicants for various types of immigration status.

USCIS has described criticism of the new rules as “baseless,” but what is really baseless are the rules themselves. They’re an unnecessary and a backdoor attempt to hinder members of Congress and their staffs from intervening on legitimate immigration emergencies with homeland security as a paramount obligation.

Mykhailo was just one case among many in my office during my time in Congress. There was the emergency medical visa for a five-year-old boy with brain tumors in Peru. The reunification of a daughter with her dying mother on Long Island. Thankfully, Congress is filled with Republicans and Democrats who are responsive to these and similar urgencies, and with casework staffers who save lives, reunify families and help local businesses by prodding, poking and nudging the bureaucracy.

We don’t need more red tape, Mr. President. We need common-sense vetting and more heart.

Steve Israel represented New York in Congress for 16 years. His next novel, “Big Guns,” will be published in April 2018.