Trump Nominating Francis Cissna to Head Immigration Agency

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By Laura D. Francis

President Donald Trump announced his intent to nominate Lee Francis Cissna to head U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

Cissna, whose intended nomination was announced April 8, currently is director of immigration policy at the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Policy. Before that, he worked in the USCIS’s Office of Chief Counsel. Cissna also has served as a foreign service officer with the State Department and practiced as an attorney in the private sector.

The USCIS is responsible for administering immigration benefits, including temporary and permanent employment-based visas. If confirmed, Cissna would be responsible for carrying out the president’s agenda in this area.

Trump’s immigration policy so far has largely focused on enforcement and border security. During the presidential election campaign, however, he mentioned retooling the H-1B program for skilled temporary workers to better serve U.S. workers. And in a February speech to Congress, Trump expressed a desire to shift U.S. immigration policy away from low-skill and family-based immigration and more toward high-skill, employment-based immigration.

U.S. Worker Displacement

Cissna seems to have focused on one particular area of interest to the Trump administration: displacement of U.S. workers by foreign workers on H-1B visas.

The temporary visas for skilled workers are supposed to help companies that can’t find domestic labor to fill “specialty occupations.” But the H-1B program has come under scrutiny recently with reports of companies laying off their U.S. information technology workers and contracting with IT consulting companies to provide the service using H-1B workers.

The Center for Immigration Studies, which favors lower levels of immigration, held a panel discussion on the topic in November 2015. Cissna, who was detailed to Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Charles Grassley’s (R-Iowa) office, spoke from the audience and called the displacement situation a “nightmare,” according to a transcript.

Cissna also spoke favorably at the event about the H-1B and L-1 Visa Reform Act, legislation introduced in multiple sessions of Congress by Grassley and Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Ill.). The more recent version of the bill added “provisions that address the replacement of U.S. workers,” Cissna said.

“We address numerous other elements of monkey business and shenanigans in this program that we think ought to stop,” he said. “The primary reform of the bill is it requires the employers to hire an American first if there is an American who’s available and eligible to do the job. That is the starting point of the whole legislation,” he said.

Likely to Undo Obama Policy

Aside from policing the H-1B program, Cissna is likely to undo many of the Obama administration’s policies and regulations, Mark Krikorian, executive director of the CIS, told Bloomberg BNA April 10.

Cissna is “very knowledgeable about the immigration system” and knows “all of the wrinkles of this stuff,” Krikorian said.

A lot of what President Barack Obama did is “likely to be undone by Cissna,” he said.

That includes a regulation providing work permits to the spouses of H-1B workers seeking permanent residence, Krikorian said.

The DHS recently told a federal appeals court that it’s taking a second look at the regulations, a feature of Obama’s 2014 executive action on immigration. If confirmed as USCIS director, Cissna would oversee any efforts to amend or revoke the regulations.

Cissna’s “a law and order guy,” Krikorian said.

“Anyone who’s ever worked as a foreign service officer on visas is disabused of any romantic or sentimental notions about visa programs,” he said. It’s clear in that position how vulnerable the visa programs are to fraud and how those in power “simply ignore that fraud,” Krikorian said.

‘Tough’ Reputation

Cissna has a “reputation of being pretty tough” on immigration, attorney Greg Siskind of Siskind Susser told Bloomberg BNA April 10.

Siskind said he worked with Cissna while Cissna was detailed to Grassley’s office. But although he was no “pushover,” Cissna did draft immigration legislation that gained the approval of Democratic Sen. Amy Klobuchar (Minn.), Siskind said.

The legislation related to a program that supplies foreign physicians to rural and medically underserved areas.

Cissna doesn’t appear to be an “ideologue” or “unreasonable” in his immigration policy views, Siskind said.

However, Cissna “hasn’t really been in a position where he’s had to state his own views,” so “things may become more apparent” during his confirmation hearings, he said.

Too Early to Tell?

It’s still early in the administration, and so the policy with respect to employment-based immigration—even from the president—is still unclear, Rebecca Peters, director of government affairs at the Council for Global Immigration, told Bloomberg BNA April 10.

“To date, one thing we have learned is that the Administration has a strong focus on enforcement of our employment-based immigration laws and policies,” she said in an email.

During the week of April 3—the first week employers could file petitions for H-1B workers—the USCIS, Justice Department and Labor Department all issued announcements that they would be watching to make sure employers don’t favor H-1B workers over qualified U.S. workers.

But Cissna “is a true professional and fully capable of implementing policies that strike the right balance between enforcement and efficiency,” said Peters, whose organization advocates for an immigration overhaul on behalf of large, multinational companies. The CFGI is asking the administration “to balance their enforcement efforts with effective management of our employment-based immigration programs,” Peters said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Laura D. Francis in Washington at

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Peggy Aulino at; Terence Hyland at; Christopher Opfer at

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