The head of the federal agency overseeing the U.S. immigration system spoke at an event hosted by an anti-immigrant organization that has routinely published false information about immigration and has been deemed a “hate group.”
U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services Director Lee Francis Cissna appeared Wednesday at the anti-immigration think tank Center for Immigration Studies’ (CIS) annual “Immigration Newsmakers” event.
Founded by John Tanton, a member of the white nationalist movement who believes maintaining an American culture requires “a European-American majority,” the Center for Immigration Studies describes itself as an “an independent, nonpartisan research organization.” Its agenda focuses on reduced legal immigration and it is a vocal supporter of increased detention and deportation of undocumented immigrants.
The Southern Poverty Law Center deemed the organization a “hate group” for its “decades-long history of circulating racist writers, while also associating with white nationalists.”
While being interviewed at Wednesday’s event by CIS policy director Jessica Vaughan, Cissna was prompted on increasing enforcement of current immigration restrictions. The USCIS chief reiterated Trump’s hard-line stance—one that the Center for Immigration Studies vociferously supports.
“For whatever reason, our authority on enforcement has not been fully exercised in the past. Well, now it will be,” he said. “Everything we at the agency should be guided by the law, not any other thing. That’s our Bible.”
Cissna also defended the Trump administration’s recent decision to denaturalize or strip some immigrants of their U.S. citizenship.
“A lot of press completely misunderstands what my agency has done on de-naturalization,” said Cissna. “We reviewed a bunch of cases where someone came into the country under one identity years ago, got deported, came back again under identity #2, and became a citizen. That’s outrageous.”
He continued: “It’s ridiculous to suggest that USCIS is running around ripping open boxes and trying to denaturalize people for just missing a comma or something like that. This is about people who lied about their identity and should be denaturalized.”
Cissna, the son of a Peruvian immigrant who was named USCIS chief in October, also championed recent hurdles implemented in the vetting process for citizenship.
“I think there’s been a misunderstanding over the years. It’s fallen under the belief that the people we serve are the people we interact with,” Cissna said. “We serve the American people.”
Cissna is the third Trump administration official to take part in the Center for Immigration Studies’ “Immigration Newsmaker” event, following appearances by James McHenry, director of the Executive Office for Immigration Review, and Thomas Homan, former director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
Beyond its association with white nationalists, CIS is known for publishing misleading data to push nativist immigration policies.
In 2008, the organization published a report alleging widespread fraud among marriages between immigrants and American citizens, while admitting to “having no way of knowing” because of a lack of systemic data.
Despite that lack of data, the CIS report stated the alleged “fraud is not just for the integrity of the legal immigration system, but also for security reasons. If small-time con artists and Third-World gold-diggers can obtain green cards with so little resistance, then surely terrorists can do (and have done) the same.”
Five years later, the Center for Immigration Studies reported that the Obama administration released 36,000 undocumented criminals from detention centers. But in a statement to The Daily Beast at the time, then-ICE deputy press secretary Gillian Christiansen rebutted that, saying CIS failed to address key points, including the fact that convicted criminals are only sent into ICE custody for deportation proceedings once they’ve completed their criminal sentence. Many of those releases, ICE said, were required by law.
The organization’s executive director, Mark Krikorian, is also known for his radical anti-immigration beliefs and is credited for popularizing the belief that undocumented immigrants overstaying their visas should be pushed out, or “self-deported.”
In response to the devastating 2010 earthquake in Haiti, which killed an estimated 160,000 people, Krikorian wrote: “My guess is that Haiti’s so screwed up because it wasn’t colonized long enough.”
And then there is the organization’s curious relationship with the Trump White House. The administration’s latest immigration policy almost exactly mirrored the organization’s 79-point wish list from two years ago. A fellow for the group was even nominated for the assistant secretary of state position at the State Department’s refugee oversight committee.
None of these issues were addressed at Wednesday’s event. However, much to the presumable delight of CIS, Cissna defended his recent decision to alter USCIS’ mission statement to remove the words “We are a nation of immigrants.”
“The first thing I did, what I wanted to do, was to redefine, clarify, what the purpose of the agency is,” Cissna said at the National Press Club. “I looked at the old mission statement and I concluded it didn’t really do that. So I started from scratch.”