The head of the federal agency that grants citizenship and immigration benefits said Friday that he had a message for anyone who considers his new mission statement anti-immigrant: "A thousand times no."
Francis Cissna told The Associated Press that he cut reference to the U.S. being a "nation of immigrants" from Citizenship and Immigration Services' mission statement because a "bureaucratic" document was the wrong platform to say so. He said the country is indisputably a nation of immigrants.
The agency's mission statement is "not something where you put eternal professions of American values. That sort of thing belongs chiseled in the wall of a monument, not in some bureaucratic mission statement," he said.
Cissna said he was surprised by criticism after announcing the change Thursday to his 18,000 employees. He said the White House had no involvement.
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"This was all inside my head," he said.
Cissna, who became director Oct. 1 after 12 years in various positions at the parent Department of Homeland Security, said he proposed a complete rewrite of the mission statement with senior agency leaders and union officials at a meeting in mid-October. It was widely discussed in the agency over several months.
The old statement read, "USCIS 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."
Cissna said he "read it a bunch of times and it just didn't do it and I thought I would just start from scratch."
The new statement reads, "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."
Cissna said it was important to add "protecting Americans" because that's why the Homeland Security Department was created in 2003 after aerial attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
"What I hope will happen is that people will better understand what it is we do and who it is we truly serve, namely the American people," he said. "I think that was lost for a little while."
The director also told employees to stop calling applicants "customers."
In his message to them on Thursday, he wrote, "Use of the term leads to the erroneous belief that applicants and petitioners, rather than the American people, are whom we ultimately serve. All applicants and petitioners should, of course, always be treated with the greatest respect and courtesy, but we can't forget that we serve the American people."
Cissna told the AP on Friday that the word "customers" is business-speak and disrespectful to visa applicants.
"It's demeaning to them because a lot of times the sorts of things they're applying for relates to intimate family matters or refugees," he said. "We're not selling anything. We're not working in a bakery."
Cissna said feedback has been positive from employees, but others had strong reactions.
Annaluisa Padilla, president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, called the changes the "latest insidious attempt by the Trump administration to diminish the valuable contributions that immigrants have made to our nation and our local communities will not turn Americans away from our most fundamental values."
NumbersUSA, a group that advocates for immigration limits and tough enforcement, welcomed the change.
"Every government agency should remember that it serves Americans and American interests first and foremost. It's great to see USCIS doing exactly that," said Chris Chmielenski, director for content and activism.