The government agency responsible for approving immigration and citizenship benefits is expanding its authority to start deportation proceedings against aliens suspected of fraud or being in the country illegally.
U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) announced Thursday that it has issued new guidance to its officers encouraging them to refer a “wider range of cases where the individual is removable” to immigration judges.
USCIS officers have always had this authority, but in the past had typically deferred to other agencies within the Department of Homeland Security for decisions on deportation.
“For too long, USCIS officers uncovering instances of fraudulent or criminal activity have been limited in their ability to help ensure U.S. immigration laws are faithfully executed,” USCIS Director L. Francis Cissna said in a statement Thursday. “This updated policy equips USCIS officers with clear guidance they need and deserve to support the enforcement priorities established by the president, keep our communities safe, and protect the integrity of our immigration system from those seeking to exploit it.”
The new guidelines apply to the issuance of a special order known as a Notice to Appear (NTA). The document is given to an alien and starts the removal process by instructing the person to appear before an immigration judge on a certain date.
Under the updated policy — outlined in an internal memo dated June 28 — USCIS officers are generally required to issue an NTA to several categories of aliens suspected of wrongdoing. Applicants suspected of fraud or abuse of public benefits will be served with an NTA, as well as aliens who have been convicted or charged with a criminal offence. People whose naturalization applications have been denied on “good moral character grounds” or criminal offenses will also receive an NTA.
“When fraud, misrepresentation, or evidence of abuse of public benefit programs is part of the record and the alien is removable, USCIS will issue an NTA upon denial of the petition or application, or other appropriate negative eligibility determination,” the memo stated.
Under Cissna’s direction, USCIS has moved to aggressively investigate aliens suspected of fraud in connection with applying for immigration or citizenship benefits. The agency created a special office in June to track down and begin denaturalization proceedings against thousands of people who gained U.S. citizenship by assuming false identities or lying to immigration authorities. (RELATED: EXCLUSIVE: New USCIS Office Investigating Thousands Who Got US Citizenship Through Identity Fraud)
Cissna courted controversy in February, when he authorized USCIS to drop the phrase “secures America’s promise as a nation of immigrants” from the agency’s mission statement. He also revised the statement to no longer refer to immigrants as “customers,” arguing that the term “leads to the erroneous belief that applicants and petitioners, rather than the American people, are whom we ultimately serve.”
Immigration activists denounced the changes, saying they reflected the government’s supposed antipathy to immigrants under President Donald Trump. But Cissna argued the revised mission statement simply affirmed the agency’s prioritization of the American public over non-citizens.
“We answer to the American people who look to us to ensure that people who are eligible for immigration benefits receive them and those who are not eligible — either because they don’t qualify or because they attempt to qualify by fraud — don’t receive them, and that those who would do us harm are not granted immigration benefits,” he said in a statement announcing the changes.
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