In a move that will harm Americans, their families, American businesses, and refugees, the Trump administration announced that United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) will close USCIS International Offices under the guise of saving money and redeploying staff to assist with stateside processing. USCIS’s 23 International Offices are in 20 countries around the globe as part of the International Operations Division (IO), a component of the Refugee, Asylum, and International Operations Directorate (RAIO).
The critical mission of IO is “[r]euniting families, enabling adoptive children to come to join permanent families in the U.S., considering parole requests from individuals outside the U.S. for urgent humanitarian reasons or significant public benefit, and providing information services and travel documents to people around the world.”
IO plays a vital role in refugee cases and reuniting refugee families, which is an area the Trump Administration has decided to greatly curtail. Furthermore, it seems strange that part of the justification is to reallocate resources and staff for backlog reduction when USCIS’s failure to timely process cases is in large part due to the Administration’s own policies. Lastly, one of USCIS’s critical roles in international offices is assistance overseas in fraud detection, which is something the Administration has focused on in their immigration policy.
There’s a lot more that IO does. The offices help U.S. citizen expats and their families remain united during international relocations back to the U.S. In 2016, the Department of State estimated there were 9 million U.S. citizens overseas. These Americans include those serving in the military, U.S. government and company employees, students, and other global travelers who are in many ways America’s face to the world. Obviously, when abroad, some of these U.S. citizens start or have families overseas. When they face a job transfer, military orders, medical emergencies, threats to personal safety, or other urgent situations, they often need to quickly return with their families to the U.S. That’s where IO comes in, helping them move through the processing faster than the well over a year it may take through domestic USCIS processing.
In one real-world example, a U.S. citizen living in Australia with her Australian husband and two young U.S. citizen children was incapacitated with a very serious spinal injury. With little family support in Australia and her husband working, she was unable to care for her children, or do critical medical and rehabilitation treatments. Her parents in the U.S. were more than willing to help care for the family. Having USCIS international offices and an “exceptional circumstance” process for Permanent Residency for her husband allowed this family to move together to the U.S. in a matter of months, so that her parents could help them through these difficult times.
Another example of USCIS international offices’ critical role in assisting families was in 2013 when the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) was struck down by the Supreme Court. The USCIS office in Bangkok could provide critical assistance to LGBTQI families in Thailand that had been virtually banned from the U.S. due to DOMA and a lack of equality. Because a U.S. citizen living in a country with a USCIS international office can file for Permanent Residency for their spouse, couples that had been waiting to move to the U.S. for years or decades could seek immigration benefits and move quickly to the U.S. USCIS has stated in this reorganization of international offices that the workload may be shifted within USCIS—presumably to domestic offices—or to the Department of State. But given that the administration is also planning to cut the Department of State’s budget, it is unclear how this additional workload will be effectively managed.
In all, there remain significant concerns about how vulnerable populations and families will fare without USCIS offices overseas. Such offices are a critical resource to help keep families united. That’s the last thing the administration should be trying to scrimp on.