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Immigration agency no longer describes America as a 'nation of immigrants'

By altering its mission statement, will U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services affect how we look at immigration? Or is the change a reflection of already changed thinking?

U.S. Border Patrol agent Jason Bush patrols along a massive steel fence on the Mexican border in Jacumba Hot Springs, Calif. (Brian van der Brug/Los Angeles Times/TNS)
U.S. Border Patrol agent Jason Bush patrols along a massive steel fence on the Mexican border in Jacumba Hot Springs, Calif. (Brian van der Brug/Los Angeles Times/TNS)Read moreBrian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times

Words matter, and America has altered some important ones.

As though chiseling away letters affixed to a federal monument somewhere, the agency in charge of immigration into the United States removed the phrase "nation of immigrants" from its mission statement late last month.

That change by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) has confused and angered people who say this kicks off a kind of national identity crisis: What is America if not a nation of immigrants? Beyond that, the move is being interpreted as further proof of perceived hostility toward newcomers by the Trump administration, which is looking to limit immigration and build a wall on the southern border.

"Oh, God, of course they did it," said Jonah Eaton, staff attorney with the Nationalities Service Center, which provides legal, health, and other services to immigrants in the Philadelphia region. "It's so patently absurd. But it's symbolically important — an ugly symbolism indicating something dark and scary, like the demographics of our nation are fixed now, and we need to reduce further immigration."

In an email to his staff, USCIS Director L. Francis Cissna said the new mission statement was "straightforward" and "defines the agency's role in our country's lawful immigration system and the commitment we have to the American people."

The old agency mission statement, recently removed from its website, 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."

The new statement says: "USCIS 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."

Critics say the administration has narrowed the immigration agency's main mission from importing new Americans to making sure the country isn't overrun by people who don't share its values.

"I find the new mission statement offensive," said Anil Kalhan, professor at Drexel University's Thomas R. Kline School of Law and an expert on immigration law. "The Trump administration is seeking to draw a sharp line between Americans and immigrants."

Sarah Paoletti, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania Law School and an expert on human rights, said the "immigration pendulum has swung to an extreme I've not seen in my lifetime. It reflects an 'othering' of immigrants. They are being seen as not us."

The immigration agency oversees all lawful immigration into the United States. That includes deciding whom to let in among refugees and those seeking asylum. Paoletti worries that agency staff members will believe their most important job now is weeding out unworthy applicants rather than providing protection for those fleeing wars and criminal regimes.

"That can make a dramatic difference over who gets protection and who doesn't," Paoletti said.

It's significant, some have commented, that the word customers is no longer in the mission statement. That wasn't an accidental omission.

Cissna said in his statement that calling immigrants "customers" only serves to emphasize the "ultimate satisfaction of applicants and petitioners, rather than the correct adjudication of such applications and petitions according to the law."

He concluded that while immigrants should be treated with respect, "we can't forget that we serve the American people."

NumbersUSA, a Virginia-based nonprofit dedicated to reducing the number of immigrants in the country, released a statement applauding USCIS for a new "focused mission statement with clear goals and objectives … [that reinforces] the need to protect Americans, secure the homeland, and honor our values. Every government agency should remember that it serves Americans and American interests first and foremost.

"It's great to see USCIS doing exactly that."

Kalhan said that as the immigration debate has raged in the nation, "consciousness of immigration language has increased in recent years."

Many news outlets, for example, no longer use the term illegal alien, preferring undocumented immigrant.

Contention also is attached to the word assimilationas though immigrants are expected to melt into America, forsaking their traditions. The preferred word these days among immigrants and their advocates is integration, implying voluntary participation in American society that doesn't demand cultural abdication.

Of course, USCIS' changing its mission statement doesn't negate the reality that America really is a nation of immigrants, save for indigenous peoples and those forced here as slaves, said Kalhan and others.

"We would have liked the words to remain," said the Rev. Luis Cortés Jr., founder and CEO of  Esperanza, a national network of Hispanic faith- and community-based organizations headquartered in North Philadelphia. "But taking them out in no way changes our history."

Still, losing nation of immigrants chills some people.

"The U.S. is built from immigrants," said Jose Mesa, 31, a green-card holder from Cuba who came to the U.S. two years ago. A Center City resident, he works in health-care business development.

"The new USCIS statement misses the trend of immigration that made this country," he said. "And it shows that we may be losing focus of who we really are in America."