By Hannah Alani
“Abolish ICE” protests are popping up around the country, but immigration workers in Charleston who have nothing to do with the controversial agency are feeling the heat.
On behalf of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, employees come to work each day to stamp visas and issue green cards. They quiz spouses on the color of their partner’s toothbrush. They comfort sobbing relatives who don’t pass exams.
Their jobs are already emotional, but the tension has been heightened since President Donald Trump rolled out a series of controversial changes in immigration policy that have pitted Americans against each other over an issue that is highly technical, complicated and cumbersome.
Francis Cissna, the national director of USCIS, visited the Charleston field office on Wednesday to meet with the staff and Skype with staffers from other parts of the Southeast. He encouraged them to keep doing their jobs and to not be sad.
Afterward, he sat down with The Post and Courier.
“The emotional environment is so charged,” Cissna said. “At some point, I fear, something very bad could happen.”
While the Charleston field office stands alone, several field offices are co-located with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, heightening anxiety. In Portland, for example, “Abolish ICE” protests will wage within eyesight and earshot of routine green card interviews.
Some longtime Charleston-based staffers worried about the state of affairs, he said.
Citizenship and Immigration Services is a sister agency of ICE and the U.S. Customs and Border Protection, all of which are under the Department of Homeland Security.
While ICE handles enforcement of undocumented immigrants and CBP coordinates deportations and issues at the border, the 19,000 employees and contractors who work for USCIS act as the government’s first line of communication with the people who seek lawful paths to U.S. citizenship.
In 2016, the Charleston office and a smaller office in Greer together issued 5,104 green cards and naturalized 4,159 people in South Carolina.
Some were students on a study abroad and others were workers seeking employment. But of the 1 million people who come to the country legally each year, most come through a family-based connection. For example, they have a parent or a sibling who is a U.S. citizen and they hope to secure their own temporary residency through a green card.
They review applications for work and student visas, conduct interviews with spouses and employers, and issue green cards. After careful review, the office makes the final call on citizenship.
Cissna was appointed by Trump to lead the USCIS and was confirmed in October. But his career with Homeland Security stretches back to the George W. Bush administration, when he joined the ranks in 2005.
An attorney by trade, Cissna worked immigration cases during the 1990s. He took a few asylum cases, which helped him understand the perspective of the applicant and the attorney. What strikes him as noteworthy, Cissna said, is that immigration laws have not changed since the 1990s — it’s policy that has changed between presidents.
In the 1990s, the process of lawful immigration was handled by the Immigration and Naturalization Service, a branch of government separate from enforcement. The ebb and flow of policy went largely unnoticed by the general public, Cissna said, but the internet changed that completely.
Around that time, the 9/11 terror attacks prompted Bush to create the Department of Homeland Security, an action that streamlined immigration services under one roof.
Under the Trump administration, the ethos behind policy has been putting American workers first, Cissna said. And that philosophy has permeated USCIS in the sense that Cissna hopes to add more interviews and more scrutiny to the immigration naturalization process.
He wants to digitize the application process, which is currently paper-based. Thousands of applications are rejected each year due to clerical errors, he said. A streamlined, digitized application process, something Cissna hopes to implement by 2020, would eliminate those headaches.
He also wants to be known as the USCIS director to make information and data transparent. Under his leadership, the agency’s website has published databases on immigration statistics that vary by state.
Finally, Cissna wants to make the screening process for refugees and other immigrants more rigorous.
What does that look like for applicants? More interviews with co-workers and employers and more frequent trips to the field offices.
“There is a misunderstanding that we serve the applicants,” Cissna said. “We serve the people.”
If we could start from scratch today, Cissna said, he would design the immigration system as such.
“What we need is an immigration system that is selective,” he said. “Random lotteries, extended family connections … that’s not the way to run our immigration system.”
Sam Edwards, an activist who is running as a Democrat to represent Lexington in the S.C. House of Representatives, said Cissna’s assessments are counter to what she hears from her voters.
Slowing down the screening process for people who are already law-abiding immigrants creates even more fear and anxiety in immigrant-heavy communities. Even in her suburban town, where most of her voters are middle class and white, there is anxiety about what will happen to a Venezeulan neighbor or spouse who is a green card holder.
When protests are happening outside of the lawful immigration and ICE offices, it’s not fair to say people don’t understand whats going on, Edwards said.
“People live in these communities, they know what is happening,” she said. “If you truly want to serve American people, listen to the outrage right now.”
At a recent naturalization ceremony at Middleton Place plantation, some new citizens discussed their frustrations of the lawful immigration process.
The journey from green card to citizenship took as many as 20 years for some. One woman, an immigrant from Spain, said she spent about $20,000 in attorneys fees.
The Caracheo family described a decades-long immigration journey that began in 1998, when Arturo Caracheo, an electrician, left his home in Guanajuato, Mexico. He moved to Charleston and was joined by his wife, Imelda Caracheo, in 2000.
“For us, it was easy,” said Arturo Caracheo, referencing the many immigrant families being separated at the border.
Imelda worked in restaurants here for nearly two decades. In 2017, she applied for her citizenship.