Director L. Francis Cissna, of the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), recently informed senior staff members that the international division of USCIS operating in more than twenty countries will likely shut down by the end of the year, cutting a key support system for those applying overseas to relocate to the United States. The move to shut down is allegedly intended to provide more resources to handle the lengthy backlog in asylum applications domestically, but it could come at the expense of legal migration. Agency staff members said closing overseas offices will make it more difficult and time-consuming to apply to immigrate from abroad, especially for refugees already in the United States who hope to bring other family members to join them.
USCIS currently has twenty-three field offices in Latin America, the Caribbean, Europe, Africa, and Asia, according to an official website. The agency has already closed its field office in Cuba, and has plans to close an office in Moscow on March 29. The USCIS offices abroad, which are located within embassies and consulates around the world, handle everything from immigration applications to fraud detection. In addition, the offices provide expertise to other U.S. government agencies and partner with foreign governments. Some responsibilities of these foreign outposts include assisting US citizens who wish to bring relatives to the United States, handling cases of people who claim a fear of persecution in their home countries, and aiding US citizens who seek to adopt a child internationally. USCIS argued last Tuesday that operations would not be disrupted if it closes its international outposts, but simply shift to domestic processing.
However, surging processing times domestically raise concerns about the effect of these foreign outpost closures. The average processing time for all cases at USCIS surged by 46 percent over the past two fiscal years and 91 percent since 2014, according to the American Immigration Lawyers Association. Additionally, the naturalization application backlog stood at 738,148 cases on September 2018, a sixteen percent increase over the level just before Trump took office.
Under Mr. Cissna, USCIS has taken on an unprecedented enforcement role by crafting a number of measures to tighten immigration rules. For example, last year the agency launched the “denaturalization task force” to strip citizenship from those who have obtained it fraudulently, as well as drafted regulations to no longer allow spouses of those already in the country on guest worker visas to obtain work permits. While President Trump is adamant about his opposition to illegal immigration, his administration has also taken steps to make the legal immigration process more difficult, and this latest move could have an impact on everyone from members of the US military to foreigners seeking to join their relatives already in the country.
In response to this, Justin Cox, a senior supervising attorney at the International Refugee Assistance Project, the legal advocacy organization for refugees and displaced people in need of a safe place to call home, agrees that shutting down the twenty-three offices in this way will not only cause “significant delays across the board” but in the worst of circumstances, the shutting down of international field offices could furthermore keep families apart for years. To this effect, the retired Chief of the Refugee Affairs Division at USCIS, Barbara Strack, stated, “It will be a great blow to the quality and integrity of the legal immigration system,” she added “It will throw that system into chaos around the world.”