The Trump administration is poised to make it harder for members of Congress to help immigrants deal with the government, according to an agency official email sent to Hill staffers and reviewed by The Daily Beast.
The email, sent Dec. 18 from a top official at U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), says the agency will put new restrictions on how members of Congress can help immigrants looking to get green cards or citizenship. It indicates that the agency will soon be demanding extra forms in many circumstances, as well as requiring certified translations and notarized signatures.
USCIS insists this is all to protect immigrants’ privacy and that any claims it’s intended to make things more difficult for them are “baseless.” Advocates say it’s yet another indication that the Trump administration is finding creative ways to make legal immigration harder.
“[This] is nothing more than an unnecessary bureaucratic roadblock placed in the way of constituents seeking the assistance of their congressional representatives to cut through USCIS red tape,” said David Leopold, an immigration attorney who formerly headed the American Immigration Lawyers Association.
Immigrants looking to get green cards or citizenship often seek help from their members of Congress when USCIS—the agency responsible for helping people legally immigrate and become citizens—isn’t being responsive.
It’s not unusual for members to help scores of immigrants every week. Indeed, a congressional inquiry can often be a godsend.
“I’ve seen congressional inquiries turn what appears to be a certain deportation into a green card, by magic,” said Matthew Kolken, an attorney based in Buffalo who often represents undocumented children.
Alma Rosa Nieto, a Los Angeles-based immigration attorney and vice chair of the American Immigration Lawyers Association media committee, said USCIS agents sometimes give her office “the runaround.” But, she added, they respond much more quickly when they get a call from the Hill.
“Congress calls—we tease about it and laugh in the office—and it’s, ‘Oops! We’re here! What do you need? We’ll solve it!’” she said.
When asking for help from Congress, immigrants sign privacy waivers that let their congressional office reach out to USCIS on their behalf and report back to them. Those waivers also let congressional staff share what they learn with the immigrants’ families and lawyers. In many cases—especially when there’s a language barrier—congressional staff work solely with the immigrant’s family or lawyer.
The changes USCIS appears poised to make—as laid out in the email to congressional staff working on immigration issues—would make it harder for members of Congress to do that work by adding dramatic increases in paperwork and red tape.
In the email, Ronald Atkinson, the acting chief of USCIS’ legislative affairs office, wrote that the changes are designed to “help both USCIS and Congress handle inquiries in a more efficient and effective manner, while also protecting sensitive information.” In the name of efficiency, he added, USCIS would only accept privacy waivers that meet the following requirements:
-Contains a handwritten and notarized signature or signature made under penalty of perjury by the subject of the records, even if outside the United States. (Digital signatures are not acceptable.)
-Names only the congressional office as the authorized recipient.
-Includes a full translation of any non-English text, as well as the translator's certification of competence to translate from the foreign language into English.
-Is newly signed and dated for a follow-up question or status update request after the initial/previous inquiry received a meaningful and accurate response and has been closed for 30 days.
In a statement provided to The Daily Beast, Jonathan Withington, a spokesperson for USCIS, said the agency does not intend—nor does it believe that—the new requirements would pose a burden for immigrants.
“USCIS is committed to safeguarding the personal information entrusted to its care in compliance with federal law and agency policy,” he said. “In accordance with its long-standing commitment to these principles, and to ensure agency information disclosure policies are appropriately and uniformly applied across the agency, USCIS generally does require individuals to provide written consent authorizing the agency to disclose their case-specific information. Any suggestion that USCIS procedures are intended to make it more difficult for individuals to obtain lawful immigration status is baseless. DHS will continue to comply with all legitimate Congressional oversight requests from such authorized committees to the fullest extent allowed under the Privacy Act.”
But advocates see the potential for trouble buried within the the legalese of Atkinson’s note to the Hill. As do some Hill aides.
A congressional staffer who helps immigrants dealing with USCIS and spoke anonymously said the first two new requirements—that the person trying to immigrate must sign the waiver, and that waiver can only authorize a Congressional office (and no one else) to get information about that person’s case—may bar Hill staffers from discussing cases with immigrants’ lawyers or family members. If that were the case, the staffer said, then it will be all but impossible for members of Congress to help immigrants who don’t speak English fluently
“For our office,” said the staffer, “it would just mean that there are some people we can’t help because of the language barrier.”
On top of that concern is the fear over the new requirement that immigrants sign brand new privacy waivers after receiving “a meaningful and accurate response” from USCIS.
The Hill staffer said offices often follow up with USCIS many times for each individual constituent. Those queries can come over the course of many months. So getting a new privacy waiver from the immigrant for each follow-up question would mean a massive increase in paperwork.
Besides the practical hurdles, attorneys are also concerned in principle. Leopold, for one, questioned whether USCIS had the authority “to dictate to a senator or U.S. representative what to require from a constituent in need of assistance with an immigration matter.” Kolken, meanwhile, said the translation requirement could prove prohibitively expensive for immigrants in need, noting that certified translators can charge up to $100 for every page they translate.
For some on the Hill, the end outcome seems almost certain to be fewer services provided to immigrants in need of assistance.
“If this new requirement precludes us from talking with attorneys, it would lighten my caseload,” the staffer said, “but to the detriment of all these people who just need to understand what’s going on with their situation.”