White House makes it official: The United States is not a ‘nation of immigrants’

The Trump administration's stance has been clear long before now.

CREDIT: Spencer Platt/Getty Images
CREDIT: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

In a move formalizing more than a year of hardline anti-immigration rhetoric from the White House, the agency responsible for overseeing both green cards and citizenship has wiped a key line framing the United States as a “nation of immigrants” from its mission statement.

In a letter sent Thursday, Lee Francis Cissna, the director of United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), told employees that the statement had been altered to “guide us in the years ahead.”

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“U.S.C.I.S. secures America’s promise as a nation of immigrants by providing accurate and useful information to our customers, granting immigration and citizenship benefits, promoting an awareness and understanding of citizenship, and ensuring the integrity of our immigration system,” read the agency’s original mission statement.

The new offering is notably altered: “U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services administers the nation’s lawful immigration system, safeguarding its integrity and promise by efficiently and fairly adjudicating requests for immigration benefits while protecting Americans, securing the homeland and honoring our values.”

That new statement, Cissna said, “clearly defines the agency’s role in our country’s lawful immigration system and the commitment we have to the American people.”

In addition to the removal of the “nation of immigrants” phrase, the statement has also eliminated any reference to non-U.S. nationals as “customers” — a decision Cissna said served as “a reminder that we are always working for the American people.”

The phrase “nation of immigrants” is not without controversy — many Native Americans have argued against the saying, as have Black Americans, arguing that the arrival of colonizers and slaves should not be conflated with immigration more broadly. But the phrase has become a rallying cry for many contemporary proponents of immigration, which helps to diversify the United States and keep the economy strong. Its removal formalizes an agenda long pursued by the Trump administration, which has made cracking down on immigration a key pillar of its tenure.

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Even before taking office, Trump vowed to curb immigration repeatedly, often singling out Muslim and Latinx communities. As president, those threats have translated into a harsh reality. Less than a month into office, Trump rolled out the first version of a travel ban targeting all refugees and citizens from a number of majority Muslim countries. Two additional versions of the ban later followed, after outcry and numerous legal threats.

The White House also singled out undocumented immigrants, ramping up raids and deportations while targeting so-called sanctuary cities. In September, Trump announced the end of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, an Obama-era directive that granted temporary protections to hundreds of thousands of undocumented immigrants who came to the United States as children.

Other programs have also come under fire. The White House has rolled back Temporary Protected Status (TPS) for recipients from multiple countries, including Haiti, El Salvador, and Nicaragua — all of whom came to the United States amid severe turmoil in their home countries. Hundreds of thousands must now uproot their lives, returning to places where they are likely to face many of the same conditions they fled.

The Trump administration has cracked down on documented immigration more broadly. The president has endorsed the Reforming American Immigration for a Strong Economy (RAISE) Act, which would cut immigration in half, from approximately 1 million people per year to 500,000. Trump has also actively targeted the diversity visa program, something many without U.S. family ties have long seen as their only chance to immigrate.

Highly skilled immigrants haven’t been spared either. Trump has repeatedly argued for a merit-based system, slamming family-based migration. But the administration has targeted H-1B visa recipients, highly-skilled workers in a number of sectors, many of whom disproportionately come from India. Experts and employers alike say that crusade could have a devastating impact on the U.S. economy and workforce.

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That’s not all. Earlier this month, reports circulated that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is preparing to scrutinize the use of public assistance funds when making immigration decisions regarding permanent residency status — even when the funds in question are used for U.S. citizen children.

That hardline approach to immigration is seemingly at odds with the realities of the president’s own administration and extended circle. Trump is the grandson of Scottish and German immigrants. His wife, Melania, is an immigrant from Slovenia; her parents appear to be U.S. permanent residents. Cissna, the USCIS director, is himself the son of an immigrant from Peru and he grew up speaking Spanish at home.

“Our family is literally a product of our nation’s legal immigration system,” he told the Senate Judiciary Committee in May. “Should I be confirmed, these experiences will undoubtedly illuminate everything I do as USCIS director.”

That illumination seems to look differently for Cissna, who advocates for ending both family-based immigration and the diversity visa program, than it does for immigration advocates. Many panned Thursday’s announcement that “nation of immigrants” would be missing from the USCIS statement.

“Our nation is one built by immigrants—removing this language does nothing to change that fact, it only reveals the insidious racism harbored by those in this administration,” said Eleanor Acer, director of refugee protection at Washington-based advocacy group Human Rights First, in a statement.

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Immigration opponents, by contrast, cheered the altered statement. “The biggest problem with our immigration system is that it lacks a clear national interest objective,” said Ira Mehlman, a spokesman for the anti-immigration Federation for American Immigration Reform, or FAIR. Mehlman said the new statement offered more clarity.

The United States has been the top international migration destination since 1960, according to the Migration Policy Institute. Around 44 million immigrants lived in the United States in 2016. More recent numbers indicate that one-fifth of the world’s immigrants lived in the country as of 2017.