Politics

Trump administration moves to close offices for international asylum and refugee cases

visa
People line up for visas at the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City. The Trump administration is moving to close U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services offices overseas.
(Lynsey Addario / For The Times)

The Trump administration took another step Tuesday to cut back services to people seeking to legally enter the U.S. and focus instead on a ballooning backlog of immigration cases, announcing that U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services would close all its international offices.

The agency’s foreign operations include reuniting families, overseeing international adoptions, and processing requests for U.S. travel for humanitarian emergencies, military members serving overseas and permanent residents seeking to return.

The agency, part of the Homeland Security Department, is preparing to shift its international operations to the State Department in order to focus on a backlog of immigration cases, its director, Lee Francis Cissna, said in a memo to agency employees sent out Tuesday and obtained by The Times.

The State Department had no immediate comment on how it would handle the additional workload. The administration has proposed significant reductions in the department’s budget.

Cissna said in his memo that the move would maximize agency resources and help reduce backlogs, “which will ultimately assist our agency to more effectively meet its mission of fairly administering our nation’s lawful immigration system.”

“Following agreement and completing of necessary wind-down procedures, we would move to close the international field offices,” he wrote.

In a statement, spokeswoman Jessica Collins said the agency would “coordinate necessary inter-agency agreements to ensure no interruption in the provision of immigration services to affected applicants and petitioners.”

The agency estimates that the closing of its overseas offices would save millions of dollars without disrupting operations.

Alan Bersin, who served as a senior official in the Homeland Security Department during the Obama administration, said Cissna was probably focusing on tightening his budget under administration pressure.

“But this is a very dramatic transformation that probably deserves a lot more study and reflection than has gone into it,” Bersin said. “It’s a closing of the door and the snuffing out of the light on the top of the Statue of Liberty.”

Leon Rodriguez, who was director of the agency from 2014 to 2017, said the move represented another withdrawal of the U.S. presence abroad.

“This is in line with the complete drawing down of the refugee-process capacity under the Trump administration, and that, I think, is a disaster,” Rodriguez said. “It’s a big stain on our nation that that has occurred.”

With record-high numbers of asylum seekers and a spike in Central American families at the southern border, the administration has struggled to reduce the growing immigration-case backlog in the United States.

According to a database maintained by Syracuse University, 829,608 asylum cases are currently pending, with an average wait of 746 days, or more than two years.

Citizenship and Immigration Services is the branch of the Homeland Security Department charged with processing immigration benefits, citizenship and, in a new focus under the Trump administration, denaturalization. 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.

The latest move is one of several the administration has taken to devote more resources to processing asylum cases, sometimes at the expense of other immigration-related jobs.

For example, the agency has reassigned officers who conduct citizenship interviews to the southern border to interview asylum seekers. In the last two years, wait times for citizenship have doubled.

The agency’s International Operations Division, part of the Refugee, Asylum and International Operations Directorate, has about 240 employees in the U.S and abroad, in 24 field offices in 21 countries, including in Mexico City, Moscow, Johannesburg and Beijing. Foreign nationals make up a third of all the division’s employees.

In a follow-up memo on Tuesday obtained by The Times, Jennifer B. Higgins, associate director of the Refugee, Asylum and International Operations Directorate, said all future deployments abroad had been canceled, effective immediately.

“There is no question that this shift will be a significant change for our directorate overall and for so many of you personally,” Higgins said.

Last year, Cissna — whose mother immigrated to the U.S. from Peru — changed the agency’s mission statement to eliminate the phrase “nation of immigrants.” He told staff the change clarified the agency’s role in “lawful immigration,” seen by some as forecasting an inward turn.

“Change can be difficult and can cause consternation,” Cissna wrote in the Tuesday memo. “I want to assure you we will work to make this as smooth a transition as possible.”

molly.otoole@latimes.com

Twitter: @mollymotoole