By Yeganeh Torbati and Mica Rosenberg
WASHINGTON/NEW YORK (Reuters) – President Donald Trump’s administration is planning to close the U.S. immigration agency’s overseas locations, according to current and former officials and an internal memo, in a move affecting offices that currently handle family visa requests, international adoptions and other tasks.
The move is the latest from an administration that has worked to limit both legal and illegal immigration since Trump took office in January 2017, including cuts to the U.S. refugee program and heightened vetting of U.S. visa applications.
U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) Director Francis Cissna, in an email message to agency employees, announced plans for closure of the international field offices. The plans called for shifting those duties to U.S.-based agency offices and American consulates and embassies abroad.
The agency, part of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, currently operates 23 offices overseas, scattered across Latin America, Europe and Asia, according to the agency’s website.
The agency offices carry out services including: helping American citizens who want to bring relatives to the United States; processing refugee applications; enabling overseas citizenship applications; and assisting Americans who want to adopt foreign children, according to its website.
The international offices can also process naturalizations of U.S. military service members who are not already U.S. citizens. USCIS officers abroad also look for fraud in visa applications and provide technical immigration advice to other U.S. government officials.
On Monday, senior USCIS officials told employees within its Refugee Asylum and International Operations division that the agency had decided to close its overseas posts, one current and one former official said. The closures will happen over the next year and some of the offices’ tasks likely will be shifted to the State Department, said the officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
“Change can be difficult and can cause consternation,” Cissna wrote, but said the agency is committed to implementing “as smooth a transition as possible.”
In places where USCIS does not have overseas posts, the State Department already carries out some of its duties, such as replacing green cards for American legal permanent residents who have lost theirs.
International USCIS staff provide support to U.S. officials who travel abroad to interview refugee applicants.
‘PULLING UP THE DRAWBRIDGE’
The administration has put in place new barriers for asylum seekers, barred citizens of several Muslim-majority countries from traveling to the United States and pushed new rules that would make it harder for low-income immigrants to become legal permanent American residents.
Advocates expressed concern that the move to close down overseas offices would create additional roadbocks for vulnerable applicants.
“They are doing an across-the-board effort to dismantle the capacity of this country to process refugees and immigrants legally,” said Mark Hetfield, president of the U.S. refugee assistance organization HIAS. “It is not consistent with what President Trump said in the State of the Union (address), which is that he wants immigrants to come here, that he wants them to come here legally.”
“This is another example of the administration pulling up the drawbridge,” Hetfield added.
Leon Rodriguez, USCIS director under Trump’s predecessor Barack Obama, said the shift may have been aimed at cutting costs and that most duties now performed internationally by USCIS likely will be delegated to U.S. consulates abroad.
“Symbolically it is retreating from an international presence,” Rodriguez said.
Agency spokeswoman Jessica Collins said by email: “As we have internally shared, USCIS is in preliminary discussions to consider shifting its international USCIS office workloads to USCIS domestic offices in the United States and, where practicable, to U.S. embassies and consulates abroad.”
“The goal of any such shift would be to maximize USCIS resources that could then be reallocated, in part, to backlog reduction efforts,” Collins said.
The agency will work closely with the State Department and the Department of Homeland Security “to ensure no interruption in the provision of immigration services to affected applicants and petitioners,” Collins added.
USCIS has in the past decided to close individual offices based on demand for its services. The agency previously announced that its Moscow field office will permanently close at the end of this month, citing a “significant decrease in workload.”
(Reporting by Yeganeh Torbati in Washington and Mica Rosenberg in New York; Additional reporting by Kristina Cooke in San Francisco; Editing by Bill Trott and Will Dunham)