The US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) announced that the agency will be closing nearly two dozen USCIS offices around the world as a cost-savings move. Administration officials say the plan will allow them to shift resources to slash backlogs in the United States, and they estimate the government will save millions of dollars each year.
The USCIS International Operations Division, created under the Refugee, Asylum, and International Operations Directorate, has about 240 employees in the United States and in two dozen field offices in more than 20 countries. It is “charged with advancing the USCIS mission in the international arena,” according to materials on the agency’s website. “Reuniting families, enabling adoptive children to come to join permanent families in the U.S., considering parole requests from individuals outside the U.S. for urgent humanitarian reasons or significant public benefit, and providing information services and travel documents to people around the world — all with unique needs and circumstances — are just a few of the responsibilities our officers assume on a daily basis,” the website says.
The USCIS is part of the Department of Homeland Security, currently operates 23 international offices across Latin America, the Caribbean, Europe, Africa, and Asia, according to an official website. The shift will ripple to offices in New Delhi, Port-au-Prince in Haiti, Rome and numerous other foreign cities where the agency has offices that handle emergencies, smooth backlogs in immigration petitions and provide direct information in foreign languages. These offices typically handle family visa requests, international adoptions, processing refugee applications and enabling overseas citizenship applications, parole requests, and other tasks, such as helping American citizens who want to bring non-citizen relatives to the U.S. The agency already has closed its field office in Cuba and previously planned to close an office in Moscow on March 29.
The international offices can also process naturalizations of U.S. military service members who are not already U.S. citizens. USCIS officers abroad also handle fraud detection. In addition, the offices provide expertise to other U.S. government agencies and partner with foreign governments.
The closing is foreseen to further slow down the flow of legal migration. Though President Donald Trump has been very vocal about his stance against illegal immigration, his administration has also taken initiatives that make the legal immigration process a struggle. The move comes as the Trump administration is pressing to tighten the nation’s immigration controls and shift from family reunification to merit-based immigration. The Department of Homeland Security officials say it is part of an overall effort to streamline U.S. immigration operations. This latest decision may affect everyone from members of the U.S. military applying for citizenship to foreigners looking forward to joining their relatives in the U.S. But immigration lawyers and others were skeptical, saying the Trump administration has delayed application processing and heightened scrutiny of applications that used to clear quickly, keeping foreigners from being able to work, study and join their families in the United States.
The USCIS Director Francis Cissna emailed his staff that the agency had initially discussed to transfer the international workload to domestic offices and the State Department “in an effort to maximize our agency’s finite resources.”
This shift in resources would allow USCIS to focus on clearing immigration backlogs in the U.S. which stood at 738,148 cases on September 30, a 16 percent increase over the level just before Trump took office. “I believe by doing so, we will better leverage our funds to address backlogs in the United States while also leveraging existing Department of State resources at the post,” he wrote. “Change can be difficult and can cause consternation. I want to assure you we will work to make this as smooth a transition as possible for each of our USCIS staff while also ensuring that those utilizing our services may continue to do so and our agency operations continue undisrupted.”
USCIS spokeswoman Jessica Collins said in a written statement that the agency would work closely with the State Department and the Homeland Security Department “to ensure no interruption … to affected applicants and petitioners.”
The agency said that more than half of the overseas USCIS staff members are foreign nationals, and the local contract employees who perform many of the applicant screenings will probably continue doing so under State Department supervision. If the State Department agrees to take over those duties, American employees in international offices will go back to the United States.
But immigration advocates worry it is another Trump administration effort to discourage foreigners from attempting to come to the United States, and experts say closing the offices will shrink the nation’s engagement with the rest of the world.
“It is a pullback from the international presence of USCIS,” said León Rodríguez, a USCIS director during the Obama administration who has hosted naturalization ceremonies for military families in Frankfurt, Germany, and Rome. “It’s in keeping with this isolationist bent that this administration has had more broadly.”
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