The U.S. immigration enforcement system was not designed for today’s regional and global flows of people.
America’s immigration policy is enforced by a vast bureaucracy rebuilt after 9/11 from the bones of a 20th-century system designed to regulate the flow of temporary workers from Mexico.
The result is that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has three large immigration agencies with workforces weary of radical policy changes from one administration to the next.
Since their establishment in 2003, the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) agencies DHS faced partisan culture shock: the Bush administration’s terrorism prevention focus and public policies. Trump’s restrictive policies, interspersed with the more liberal strategies of the Obama and Biden administrations.
“In some ways, the larger reality here that really makes it difficult for these agencies is the whiplash. And the reality is that with every administration, there are really drastic changes in policy, and that’s very difficult for any large organization,” said Doris Meissner, who runs the Immigration and Refugee Agency. President under former President Clinton and currently head, said. U.S. Immigration Policy Program at the Migration Policy Institute.
“But certainly, for organizations that are dealing with such controversial issues, really drastic changes from one regulator to another are probably harder to accept.”
The changes were so sudden that they affected the agencies’ entire mission statements.
In 2018, under former President Trump, then-USCIS Director Francis Cissna announced such a new statement, removing the phrase “nation of immigrants” and eliminating the term “customer” for Foreign nationals apply to the agency for work permits or immigration changes. status and naturalization.
Last year, the Biden administration quietly issued a new, concise mission statement that dropped Cissna’s national security-focused motto without returning to the original wordy language: “USCIS upholds the promise America’s promise is to be a welcoming and capable nation with fairness, integrity, and respect. for all we serve.”
The whiplash isn’t just skin deep and it affects leadership at every level.
ICE has not had a Senate-confirmed director since the Obama administration, and CBP has been led by an acting commissioner for four of the past six years.
“It affects the larger vision,” said an official who requested anonymity to speak candidly.
“But the basic function is moving towards professionalization.”
Trump has weaponized the difficulty of Senate confirmation, spending nearly half of his presidency on an acting DHS secretary.
“I love acting. It gives me more flexibility. Do you understand that? I love acting. So we have a few that are acting. We have a great Cabinet, ” Trump said in 2019, shortly before Kirstjen Nielsen, Trump’s last Senate-confirmed DHS head, resigned.
And Trump has used that flexibility to staff immigration agencies with prominent names from the restrictions movement, drawing strong support from employees who support his policies. hawk book.
“There are certainly aspects of law enforcement culture and voices, especially the unions within CBP and ICE that have strongly encouraged all of those policies,” Meissner said.
“But there were also people in those agencies who were marginalized during that period of time, and were deeply offended by the rhetoric and the very, very extreme characterization of migration and the immigrant.”
While Biden hasn’t quite turned the keys over to the pro-immigrant activist wing, he has recruited key activists to top White House advisory positions.
Biden chose Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas because of his strong law enforcement background and endorsements from former Bush secretaries Tom Ridge and Michael Chertoff, but those credentials don’t sit well with most. All Republicans in the Trump era.
Mayorkas’ role as one of the architects of the Obama-era DACA program and relentless Republican attacks on the administration’s border policies have turned the secretary into a lightning rod , frequently faces impeachment threats from House Republicans.
But looking inside, Mayorkas is in charge of running a company with about 260,000 employees.
DHS immigration divisions have a history of low morale, in part because officials and agents are tired of changing course.
That burnout is most evident in the Border Patrol, a division of CBP, where the work doesn’t always align with training.
Partly because of a generational shift: Officers hired before 9/11 were trained to monitor vast stretches of wilderness looking for stealthy border crossings, the next generation was attuned with counter-terrorism work and over the past decade, officers have developed work in the context of the global mass migration phenomenon.
That makes the job of processing asylum seekers more routine than guarding “fence,” even though Border Patrol recruitment ads would indicate otherwise.
“It is clear that culturally, the Border Patrol believes that they are being prevented from performing the law enforcement mission for which they have been trained and are performing,” Meissner said. in adapting to the role required by conditions on the ground.
“What they don’t see is how well they’re actually doing,” said one official, who requested anonymity.
Administration officials said they are optimistic about the status of ICE and CBP, including the Border Patrol.
Both agencies are better funded, better equipped and more powerful than ever, although the Border Patrol has chronic problems retaining employees.
And both are expanding their footprints. For example, ICE on Wednesday will conduct a repatriation flight to Venezuela – the first since Biden administration officials reached a deal with the Maduro regime earlier this month.
Expanding deportation flights will not make the Biden administration popular with pro-immigration allies, but internally it is seen as a victory for proper functioning of DHS.
Officials are less optimistic about the future of USCIS, an agency largely funded by immigrant filing fees. Besides its financial difficulties, the country is stuck implementing a legal immigration system that the administration and its allies agree is outdated.
The official said immigration laws are “misaligned” with the economic needs of both migrants and the U.S. labor market.
That mismatch creates more unpaid work for USCIS – humanitarian applications such as asylum do not come with a fee – and causes CBP at the border to overload with asylum claimants, who according to Other legal frameworks may have applied for a paid work visa and flown directly to their place of work. final destination.
Advocates understand that Congress has not changed immigration laws in decades, but they say the administration could strengthen immigration processing, both at DHS and at the Department’s Executive Office for Immigration Review Judiciary – immigration court.
“The two biggest obstacles to a system that works are roads that meet the needs of the country – and that’s an issue, you know, I think it’s more a matter of the role of Congress than agencies are implementing and enforcing our laws. . So I don’t think the responsible agencies are there,” said Krish O’Mara Vignarajah, president of the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Agency.
“The rest is just personnel. It’s clear that we live in an economy that mirrors the job market. We don’t have nearly enough of the staff that we need, whether we’re talking about asylum officers or immigration judges, and that’s where I think agencies can take a more proactive role. ”
That’s been a point of contention between the Biden administration and its supporters.
Administration officials say asylum is being unfairly abused by economic migrants, and they emphasize the need for deterrence combined with expanded legal pathways.
“I think the lesson we should have learned by now is that containment doesn’t work when desperate people are running for their lives,” Vignarajah said.
With reforms to U.S. immigration laws and short-term solutions to poverty and unrest in the Americas seemingly out of reach, advocates say success in addressing the human challenge Current leadership will ultimately be judged against higher standards.
“Do we have a system that reflects our role as global humanitarian leaders? Do we have a system that meets our economic and national security needs? And do we have a system that is true, in part, to our history as a nation of immigrants?” Vignarajah said.
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