Lee Francis Cissna resigned as the director of the US Citizenship & Immigration Services (USCIS) effective June 1, 2019, after President Trump asked him to step down. President Trump’s removal of Cissna has confused anti-immigration hardliners, since during Cissna’s tenure at the agency he has led efforts to make legal immigration more difficult. Thomas Homan, Trump’s former head of Immigration Customs & Enforcement (ICE), praised Cissna after his resignation, telling Fox News, “I thought he was the right guy at the right time…I don’t know why the White House made this decision.”
Cissna, a civil servant during the Obama administration who served as DHS’s director of immigration policy before working for Republican Senator Chuck Grassley, returned to his DHS job under President Trump. As director of USCIS, he has overseen a USCIS rule expected to go into effect later this year that would expand the definition of “public charge” so that Green Card and other visa applicants can be denied for using “one or more public benefits” in the past or being “likely at any time” to receive these benefits in the future, as well as a rule that would block spouses of more than 90,000 high-skilled H-1B visa holders from working in the US while their partners wait for Green Cards. But Cissna’s background is different than many other immigration hardliners. Cissna’s mother immigrated to the United States from Peru and he spoke Spanish at home, the same language that is spoken to his children at home. After law school, Cissna reportedly appeared in court only twice, both times representing asylum seekers pro bono.
Cissna moved too slowly for White House senior policy adviser Stephen Miller, according to Noah Lanard writing in Mother Jones, and was forced out as part of a DHS “purge” that included the removal of former DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, her acting deputy, and Homan’s replacement at ICE. Mark Krikorian, the executive director of the anti-immigrant Center for Immigration Studies, wrote on Twitter shortly after news of Cissna’s resignation: “Francis Cissna is a patriot whose contributions at USCIS will only become clearer over time.” President Trump wants to replace Cissna with Ken Cuccinelli, a former Virginia attorney general whose immigration rhetoric is harsher than Cissna’s. In response to the news of Cuccinelli’s potential hiring, Danielle Spooner, the head of the union representing all USCIS employees, said in a statement that it “has become clear that the goal of this administration is to end immigration all together.”