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Trump’s Homeland Security purge claims another victim, head of citizenship agency

Senate Judiciary Committee Holds Hearing On EB-5 Investor Visa Program
U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services Director Lee Francis Cissna testifies before the Senate Judiciary Committee in 2018.
(Win McNamee / Getty Images)

The latest head to roll in President Trump’s continued purge of top Homeland Security officials is that of Lee Francis Cissna, the director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

Trump asked for Cissna’s resignation, which he submitted Friday, according to an email Cissna sent to agency personnel. He’ll leave the agency on June 1.

While not known as a flamethrower, Cissna courted controversy as he sought to implement Trump’s policies during his tenure at Citizenship and Immigration Services. He pursued the administration’s stated goal of reducing immigration, both legal and illegal. Citizenship and Immigration Services is tasked with processing immigration benefits, citizenship and, in a new focus under the Trump administration, denaturalization.

Cissna had a brief moment in headlines last year when he edited the beginning of Citizenship and Immigration Services’ mission statement, “USCIS secures America’s promise as a nation of immigrants,” to eliminate the phrase “nation of immigrants.” He told his staff the change clarified the agency’s role in “lawful immigration.” The change was seen by some as forecasting an inward turn.

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But he apparently lacked enough zeal to please some of Trump’s hard-line advisors on immigration issues, leading to his ouster.

In his exit announcement, Cissna repeatedly emphasized the “rule of law,” writing that his 20-month tenure “laid the groundwork for many more, much-needed, lawful reforms to come in the near future.” He also hinted at the current upheaval at Homeland Security, describing his tenure as a “challenging time.”

“We are the government servants charged with lawfully, efficiently and fairly adjudicating requests for immigration benefits, while protecting Americans, securing the homeland, and honoring our nation’s values,” he wrote Friday in his email, obtained by The Times.

Underscoring the uncertainty at Homeland Security, the federal government’s third-largest department with roughly 240,000 employees, Cissna reportedly will be replaced by Ken Cuccinelli II -- an immigration hardliner and cable news fixture whose name administration officials just days ago floated as a new “immigration czar.” Cuccinelli, however, has a strong enemy in Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky. Neither McConnell’s office nor the White House responded to requests for comment.

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In April, Trump forced out then-Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, naming Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Kevin McAleenan as her replacement. Nielsen spent her last days at the department announcing a cascade of exits for top officials, including U.S. Secret Service Director Randolph “Tex” Alles; Claire Grady, the acting deputy Homeland Security secretary; and acting Immigration and Customs Enforcement Director Ronald D. Vitiello.

The purge at Homeland Security began a few days before Nielsen’s removal, when Trump blindsided her and many other officials by abruptly pulling Vitiello’s nomination to lead ICE on a permanent basis. At first, White House aides told congressional staffers the withdrawal notification had been sent in error. Then Trump told reporters he wanted to go in a “tougher” direction on immigration enforcement. The president also surprised officials when he announced in early May his pick to replace Vitiello, Mark Morgan, a Border Patrol chief under President Obama.

In his confirmation hearings, Cissna — whose mother immigrated to the U.S. from Peru — told lawmakers that he spoke Spanish exclusively at home with his children, explaining, “the immigrant experience has always been a fundamental part of my family life.”

Under his tenure, Citizenship and Immigration Services has directed more resources to reducing a ballooning immigration-case backlog — more than 890,000 pending immigration cases, with an average wait of more than two years — sometimes at the expense of other missions.

At the border and across the country, agency officers interview asylum seekers to help determine whether their cases will proceed or whether they will be removed from the U.S. Cissna took officers who conduct citizenship interviews and reassigned them to the southern border to interview asylum seekers. In the last two years, wait times for citizenship have doubled.

In recent weeks, Citizenship and Immigration Services also has begun to train Border Patrol agents to conduct initial interviews that asylum seekers go through to determine whether they have what U.S. law defines as a “credible fear” of being persecuted in their home country. The moves gave new power to the Border Patrol and took some discretion away from Citizenship and Immigration Services asylum officers, part of an effort to toughen the process for people seeking asylum.

In March, Cissna announced that his agency would close all of its international offices and prepare to shift its foreign operations to the State Department in order to focus on the backlog. Citizenship and Immigration Services had worked abroad to reunite families, oversee international adoptions, and process requests for U.S. travel for humanitarian emergencies, military members serving overseas and permanent residents seeking to return.

Cissna has also overseen new “public charge” rules penalizing immigrants who use public benefits — and their U.S.-citizen children. Those proposed changes drew hundreds of thousands of public comments, which the agency is required by law to review. Stephen Miller, Trump’s domestic policy advisor and an immigration hardliner, has been frustrated with Cissna for what he viewed as foot-dragging on implementing the public charge rule and other proposals.

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As near-record numbers of asylum seekers and Central American families continue to arrive at the U.S.-Mexico border, Trump critics and supporters alike fear that Miller may not yet be through with a kind of hit list to “clean house” at Homeland Security. The department, created to ensure domestic security, has dozens of leadership vacancies, in addition to the handful of top officials serving in an acting capacity.

Cissna avoided the first round of firings after key Republican senators came to his defense.

McConnell has made clear he will block Cuccinelli from any position requiring Senate confirmation.

In 2014, Cuccinelli, a former Virginia attorney general, backed an effort to defeat GOP Senate incumbents and called for McConnell to step down. He also sought to peel delegates away from Trump at the Republican National Convention in 2016, even throwing his ID badge on the convention floor to protest Trump’s nomination. At the time, he was working on behalf of Republican Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas.

In announcing in March that USCIS would close its international offices, Cissna wrote in a memo to agency staffers obtained by The Times: “Change can be difficult and can cause consternation.”

molly.otoole@latimes.com

Twitter: @mollymotoole


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