Lee Francis Cissna is the multilingual son of a Peruvian immigrant and son-in-law of a refugee from Palestine. He is also the Director of US Citizenship & Immigration Services (USCIS), and has overseen some of the Trump administration’s toughest immigration policy changes. Politico interviewed a selection of Cissna’s current and former co-workers, classmates, and friends, in order to obtain a better understanding of the man involved with many of the harsh Trump administration policy changes, including the recent “zero-tolerance” policy which resulted in thousands of family separations. “We’re pretty stunned that a guy who is compassionate, funny, proud of his immigrant mother from Latin America, that he would now be one of the key architects of the seemingly heartless policy of separating families,” Dan Manatt, a documentary filmmaker and former classmate of Cissna’s at Georgetown Law School, tells Politico.
In an interview with Politico, Cissna explains that the pivotal moment in his career was the September 11th terrorist attacks. Prior to this, Cissna had been working at several law firms before joining the State Department as a consular officer in 1999, becoming the chief of the Stockholm division that dealt with temporary visas. “It was a pretty horrific day for all of us in the consular service oversees,” Cissna says about 9/11. “I, like everybody else in the field, naturally began to focus more intently on how this could have happened, what we can do to ensure that it doesn’t happen again.” A 2004 government report revealed that border officials could have stopped about fifteen of the nineteen hijackers. As a result, Cissna believes that “immigration could no longer be viewed the same way it was before.”
In 2002, Cissna left the State Department and joined an immigration law firm in Richmond, Virginia. Three years later, he began working for USCIS in the chief counsel’s office where he assisted President Bush’s immigration reform efforts. From 2006 to 2015, Cissna worked for the Homeland Security Department’s policy shop, eventually becoming a director under the Obama administration. With experience in both the State Department and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), Cissna volunteered for Trump’s presidential campaign because he “supported the campaign’s positions on fidelity to the immigration laws and, in particular, protection of American workers and jobs.”
As Director of USCIS, Cissna has been involved with many significant policy changes. With the fiscal year coming to an end, the Trump administration has only admitted approximately 20,825 refugees. The percentage of immigrant visas processed for extended family members has decreased to nine percent, down from twenty-two percent in the previous year, the Migration Policy Institute says. USCIS policies have halted premium processing for certain H-1B petitions and there are plans to rollback work authorization for spouses of certain H-1B visa holders.
With the biggest policy changes and regulations like the controversial travel ban and family separations at the US/Mexico border have received the most attention, programs such the denaturalization task force that investigates fraud and strips citizenship as well as a policy that allows an immigration officer the ability to deny an application without first requesting additional evidence or issuing notice have also gone into effect under Cissna’s leadership. In addition, Cissna is also working on a proposed regulation that could prevent immigrants from obtaining Green Cards if they or their family members have received public benefits in the past.
Despite harsh criticism, Cissna tells Politico that he does not see any conflict in shaping policies and regulations that could have kept his own family from migrating to the US, had they been implemented decades ago. Instead, he believes that lawmakers should not be “handicapped or shackled” by the fact that their own families may have benefited from a particular program. When questioned about his policies, he says that he explains that “such and such policy that’s being depicted by the media or by opponents of the policy as some sort of nefarious plot is in fact just an attempt to bring the agency’s actions back in line with the law. And when I explain that, I think people understand it.”
Not all are so understanding. Garen Meguerian, a Philadelphia-based civil rights attorney and former classmate of Cissna’s at Georgetown Law School, says: “If you had asked me back in law school who would be the person most likely supporting this administration with some digressive, draconian immigration policy, I probably would have picked any other person in our section of the class over Francis.” Tyler Moran, managing director of the pro-migrant D.C. Immigration Hub, finds Cissna’s agenda mirrors Trump’s nationalist rhetoric. “I think it’s pretty simple,” Moran says. “They don’t want to let more people into the country…They just want to put the invisible wall up.”