Closing immigration office abroad will hurt both Americans and immigrants

I keep a photo in my office of me with a family of Somali refugees whom, in my former capacity as a U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) officer stationed overseas, I had approved for resettlement in Minnesota.

They had endured years of suffering in the worn-torn country, then fled to a refugee camp in Kenya, where they lived in dire conditions. To express their gratitude for the safety that now awaited them, the family invited me to a spaghetti lunch in their hut. It marked a celebration of America’s humanitarian spirit and longstanding tradition of providing refuge to families escaping persecution.

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As that photo illustrates, USCIS’s International Operations Division, including its more than 20 overseas offices, has long aided non-citizens overseas who qualify for refugee and other immigration status in the United States. This work is invaluable. But what much of the public, and many federal lawmakers, may not realize is the central role these offices play in furnishing critical immigration services to U.S. citizens living, working, and serving abroad. The Trump administration’s recent announcement that it would shutter USCIS’s international offices would have devastating effects on everyone those offices currently help — Americans and immigrants alike.  

USCIS’s international offices provide a range of immigration services to Americans abroad. These include facilitating U.S. citizen parents’ adoption of international children; naturalizing the family members of American military personnel; and helping Americans relocate, along with their foreign national spouses and children, back to the United States to rejoin the domestic workforce.

I know firsthand the indispensability of these overseas offices. I worked for USCIS and its predecessor — Immigration and Naturalization Services — for over 11 years. My tenure featured various international assignments, culminating in a position with the USCIS office at the US embassy in London. During this stint, I traveled to military bases, refugee camps, and U.S. embassies to help people, including many Americans, navigate the maze of U.S. immigration and citizenship laws.

There were U.S. citizens who had adopted orphans and needed to expeditiously bring them home. There were military spouses, who had to quickly naturalize so they could return with their U.S. citizen partners — our nation’s troops — on immediate rotation orders. In fact, American military members and their families are among the foremost beneficiaries of USCIS offices abroad.

Without in-country USCIS services, these individuals would have faced substantial obstacles to keeping their families together, obstacles that would have distracted from and undermined their mission of defending our country. As such, my work, and the work of my fellow USCIS colleagues abroad, not only helped Americans on an individual level, but also served vital national interests in family unity and combat readiness.

I eventually left government service, and since 2008, have maintained a U.S. immigration law practice in the United Kingdom, focused on assisting the U.S. expatriate community.

Time and again, my clients have depended on the expedited services provided by the London USCIS office. One instructive example: a U.S. citizen residing in the UK, his non-U.S. spouse, and their child, desperately needed to return to the United States to care for his dying mother. Domestic USCIS processing would have taken over a year, but thanks to the existence of the USCIS office in London, we were able to obtain USCIS approval within a matter of days so that the family could be together in the United States.

We should fear for the safety of refugees — just like that family of Somalis who graciously invited me to their hut — who will face reduced access to humanitarian protection as a result of the closure of international USCIS offices. And we should be alarmed over the harmful consequences for numerous other noncitizen populations around the world.

But it is also imperative that all of us — including members of the Trump administration, Congress, and the public — recognize the harm these closures will bring to Americans and their families, not least our nation’s troops. For all these reasons, USCIS should reverse its planned closures and commit to keeping its international offices open.

Steven D. Heller is director of Heller Immigration, a UK-based U.S. immigration law firm specializing in personal and business visas. He has over 25 years of experience, both with the government and in private practice. He is active in the American Immigration Lawyers Association, serving on the USCIS Liaison committee and as chair of the New York chapter consular committee.