Trump ramps up scrutiny of legal immigrants

The Trump administration is stepping up efforts to curb legal immigration, taking a series of actions in recent weeks that could lead to deportation for people already granted citizenship.

The director of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) — an office established in 2003 to process immigrant applications for visas, work permits, green cards and citizenship — told The Associated Press recently that the agency is hiring dozens of lawyers and immigration officers to review cases of immigrants who are suspected of having lied to officials during the naturalization process.

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The office made public on July 5 a memo announcing its plan to start issuing notices to appear for a wider range of cases. Those notices, which require an immigrant to appear before an immigration judge on a certain date, can be the first step in deportation proceedings.

Experts say that policy change, coupled with what came next, could vastly expand the number of individuals being referred for removal.

The agency said last week that starting Sept. 11 its adjudicators will have the ability to outright deny applications that are missing information. That’s a departure from an Obama-era policy of sending requests for more evidence or issuing a warning of their intent to deny the application.

“The memos are really, layer by layer, going after people who are in line doing the right things,” Anastasia Tonello, president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, said.

The administrative changes highlight how Trump officials, including Attorney General Jeff SessionsJefferson (Jeff) Beauregard SessionsSessions: DOJ concerned about suppression of free speech on college campuses Faith communities are mobilizing against Trump’s family separation policy Former FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe lands book deal MORE and White House adviser Stephen Miller, aren’t just seeking to curtail illegal immigration — they’re also taking steps against naturalized citizens in an effort to reduce the number of foreign-born residents in the U.S.

USCIS says the policy changes are an effort to ensure the nation’s immigration laws are faithfully executed to keep communities safe and secure.

Michael Bars, an agency spokesman, said in a statement to The Hill that immigrants can always file an appeal when a benefit is denied. 

But immigration experts say the changes — along with the agency’s new mission statement emphasizing the security of U.S. citizens — mark a noticeable shift in an agency that was previously focused on customer service.

There’s a reason we set up our benefits agency separate from our enforcement agency, and it seems like a bunch of changes have been put in place to make USCIS more of an enforcement agency,” said Sarah Pierce, a policy analyst with Migration Policy Institute’s U.S. Immigration Policy Program. It’s problematic and very concerning.”

USCIS called the allegation that it is transitioning to an enforcement agency false and inaccurate.

“The truth is that many open borders advocates believe the U.S. should turn a blind eye to cases of illegal immigration, fraud, human trafficking, gang activity and drug proliferation at the expense of public safety and the integrity of our laws,” Bars said.

“Each year, immigration benefits including the great privilege of citizenship are attainable for many legitimate individuals each seeking greater opportunity, prosperity, and security as newly entrusted members of society,” he said, adding that USCIS is committed to adjudicating all petitions and applications fairly, efficiently and effectively on a case-by-case basis.

The additional lawyers and immigration officials announced in June by USCIS Director L. Francis Cissna are for a new office that the agency says will serve as a centralized location to review and refer appropriate cases for denaturalization to the Department of Justice.

The cases involve individuals who had been ordered to be removed from the country and intentionally used multiple identities to defraud the government to obtain citizenship, USCIS said.

The new office is the byproduct of an investigation completed in 2016 by the Department of Homeland Security Office of Inspector General after Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) discovered in 2011 that it was missing fingerprint records of immigrants who were fugitives or convicted criminals, as well as those who had deportation orders.

The investigation found that USCIS has granted U.S. citizenship to 858 immigrants who had been ordered deported or removed under another name.

More than 2,500 naturalization cases have been determined to require an in-depth review for possible denaturalization, of which almost 100 have been referred to the Department of Justice for denaturalization, according to USCIS.

So far, six individuals have been denaturalized, meaning ICE will decide whether to pursue deportation proceedings.

With so few denaturalizations for fraud, policy experts say the new office isn’t worth the investment.

Ruth Wasem, a clinical professor of public policy at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin, said most people haven’t done anything wrong.

“It’s hard not to think it’s pretty hateful to be assuming people who are trying to go through the legal process are somehow sinister,” she said.