LAREDO, Texas – Within weeks of becoming the acting director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), Ken Cuccinelli has started enacting sweeping changes across the country’s immigration system, angering critics and showing how the administration increasingly is tightening legal immigration.
USCIS is an overlooked agency for most Americans as it largely deals with bureaucratic issues to do with green card applications and citizenship requests for aspiring Americans. Most media attention tends to divert to other Homeland Security agencies such as Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
But any immigrant who has waited in lines at USCIS facilities and nervously opened mail with its seal on the envelope can attest to the agency’s importance in overseeing and enforcing U.S. law.
Cuccinelli, who this week toured the southwest border and met with officials from his agency, ICE and Customs and Border Protection (CBP), has thrust the agency into national attention since being appointed acting director in June.
The agency was in the spotlight last week with the rollout of the “public charge” rule, giving officials updated guidance as to when they should deny green cards to immigrants deemed likely to be reliant on government welfare. The rule had been brewing in the agency for nearly two years but, within weeks of Cuccinelli taking charge, it was out.
While the concept of denying residency or admittance to those likely to be a public charge isn’t new and goes back to the 1800s, the rule defines “public charge” as an immigrant who receives one or more designated public benefits for more than 12 months within a 36-month period. It includes benefits such as most forms of Medicaid and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), commonly known as food stamps.
“First of all, I see USCIS as a vetting agency, not a benefits agency,” Cuccinelli told Fox News in an interview near the Texas-Mexico border Wednesday. “We have benefits that we give when people meet legal thresholds but it’s on them to prove they’ve done it and it’s our job to make sure those are going to people who have in fact met those thresholds, and we’re protecting America by screening people trying to come in and stay here a long time.”
The rule sparked fierce criticism from Democrats and immigration-rights activists who claimed it would have a "chilling" effect on immigrants who need benefits. The move will almost certainly have far-reaching consequences in terms of who now gets a green card, and the administration hopes it will save the American taxpayer billions by preventing public charges from becoming residents.
Cuccinelli said the rollout is a sign of the speed with which the agency is moving under his watch as it looks to enforce the White House’s priorities on immigration.
“Public charge is the biggest thing we’ve brought out,” he said. “That’s going to be properly implemented and it will be very consequential in the long term, but we’re also just moving with a speed on the regulatory front that we haven’t before and I think we’re really getting out and telling the positive story of the president’s agenda on immigration, aggressively.”
While he has been getting that story out, making a number of media appearances including on Fox News, it has also made him a lightning rod for controversy as immigration remains a hotly debated, and partisan, issue.
On Monday after remarks re-emerged showing that Cuccinelli called waves of Central American migrants crossing the border “an invasion,’’ 2020 Democratic hopeful Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., said he was “unfit” to lead USCIS.
Within hours of the unveiled “public charge” rule last week, Cuccinelli found himself being asked by multiple reporters about poetry, namely Emma Lazarus’ “The New Colossus” – a sonnet displayed within the Statue of Liberty and known for its line “give me your tired and poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free...” The poem has often been used as a form of counterargument to those concerned about the quality of immigrants coming into the country.
In one of those instances, Cuccinelli was asked if the words are “part of the American ethos.”
“They certainly are: ‘Give me your tired and your poor who can stand on their own two feet and who will not become a public charge,’” Cuccinelli said on NPR, in a twist on the poem’s original words. “That plaque was put on the Statue of Liberty at almost the same time as the first public charge was passed — very interesting timing.”
The remark sparked fury within the commentariat, with outlets accusing him of trying to “rewrite” or “edit” the verse. Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright declared: “I think the Statue of Liberty is weeping.”
Cuccinelli later assured a CNN host that he was not intending to rewrite poetry: “I didn’t bring up the poem, an NPR reporter did and now you have. I didn’t bring it up,” he said.
However, asked once again about it by the host, particularly the poem's reference to "wretched refuse," Cuccinelli sparked another furor by saying the poem was "referring back to people coming from Europe where they had class-based societies where people were considered wretched if they weren’t in the right class." Democratic presidential candidate Beto O'Rourke cited the remarks as proof that the administration believes "the Statue of Liberty only applies to white people."
Cuccinelli may have little interest in rewriting verses, but his agency has shown a greater appetite for rewriting and overhauling guidance on immigration enforcement — something that could have significantly bigger implications for U.S. immigration policy.
A week after “public charge” was unveiled, USCIS on Monday issued new policy guidance that tightened rules for awarding discretionary work permits to immigrants who have been allowed into the U.S. for humanitarian reasons or other “extraordinary” circumstances. USCIS said the guidance emphasizes "the use of discretion when determining whether to grant employment authorization for foreign nationals paroled into the United States in keeping with existing policies."
“USCIS has determined that it is necessary to issue this guidance at this time because there is a national emergency at the U.S. southern border where foreign nationals are entering the U.S. illegally," the agency said in a statement.
That rule indicates that Cuccinelli’s USCIS is taking strong interest in its role in tackling the migration crisis at the border. While it is primarily an agency dealing with legal immigration, certain aspects of asylum claims fall under its watch. It is in this context that Cuccinelli visited the border this week -- going on an operational mission over the Rio Grande Valley sector with CBP’s Air and Marine Operation (AMO) and touring the river separating Mexico and the U.S. in Laredo, in addition to touring an ICE detention center and other facilities.
BuzzFeed News reported last month that Cuccinelli has pushed officers to get tougher in screening those claiming asylum at the border, using the “credible fear” claim. He noted there is a significant difference between the number who are granted an initial asylum passage and who are eventually deemed to have a legitimate asylum claim.
“Therefore, USCIS must, in full compliance with the law, make sure we are properly screening individuals who claim fear but nevertheless do not have a significant possibility of receiving a grant of asylum or another form of protection available under our nation’s laws,” he said, reminding officers they have tools to combat “frivolous claims.”
The outlet also reported that USCIS has cut the two-day window between an immigrant’s detention and asylum interview to one — something that immigration groups have said will give them less time to prepare.
With these measures in place, along with his vigorous defense of the administration’s policies, the former Virginia state attorney general has picked up a reputation as a hardliner within the administration. It’s not a label that bothers him.
“If enforcing the law is being a hardliner,” he said when asked by Fox if he views himself as one. “Unfortunately I think just enforcing the law at its most basic level has become controversial. Look what’s happening to ICE, they’re being vilified for doing their job -- including by members of Congress who could change the law.”
He also rejects the idea that the goal of the administration is anti-immigrant, or is seeking to shut down immigration into the U.S.
“The president made pretty clear he wants to add value to the immigration system to America, he doesn’t want to shut it down, he wants it to work. I’ve gotten that from him in several conversations, so we’re trying to do that, make sure the law is enforced the way it’s written and try to add value,” he said.
Cuccinelli’s prominence has led to speculation by media outlets and former officials that he could be in the hunt to replace acting DHS chief Kevin McAleenan.
But talking to Fox News, Cuccinelli focused on a number of issues for USCIS to tackle, including the upcoming Supreme Court fight involving the termination of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which gave a deportation reprieve to young immigrants brought to the U.S. illegally as children.
Asked what he sees as a key issue for his agency to tackle in the coming months, he responded: “Making fraud matter.”
“People think with some justification that they can lie to our officers and get away with it, and I’m very determined to bring consequences to that across the agency and that’s something I hope to work on in the next several months.”
Fox News' Gregg Re contributed to this report.