Last week, our local USCIS liaison committee received troubling news. Our quarterly liaison meetings are cancelled moving forward and our AILA emails will all be ignored from this point forward. This is yet another example of how this administration and its policies are turning USCIS away from service, taking away transparency, and I have to admit it – making it more and more difficult for attorneys to do their work.
I’ll admit it, this change feels more personal than some of the others. I have been involved in liaison work for seven out of my nine years of practice. I am a strong believer that both USCIS and attorneys want the same outcome – for cases to be adjudicated fairly and efficiently. I have always seen us as partners, not adversaries. I am proud of my service leading our local liaison team for two years and my five years of service doing national liaison work. Together, we found solutions to how to deal with multiple interviews at the same time, we helped protect domestic violence victims whose cases with their abusers needed to be switched and their privacy protected, we helped USCIS track waiting times for interviews, we pointed out areas of inconsistency in legal interpretations around the country. I’ve always wanted to help USCIS – be it with identifying issues for training or helping to solve individual case issues. I want this because a better USCIS is better for everyone – it’s not about MY client, but about ALL clients.
AILA attorneys are in a unique position to work with USCIS because we get to see so much. In October, I went to nine interviews and had nine different experiences.
Does USCIS leadership know that a particular officer say any fingerprinting experience constitutes an arrest – even if that fingerprinting was done by USCIS for a mandatory background check? Does USCIS leadership know that their officers are unclear about the November 1 medical exam policy change – some say that the medical exam is mandatory with filing and others say it can be submitted at the interview (for the record, USCIS’s own policy manual says it can be be submitted anytime). Does USCIS leadership know that officers are requiring attorneys to fill out new G-28s to verify representation because the form expired – despite the fact that nearly all of the forms involved in an application have expired because of the delays in interviewing, yet they don’t require new I-485s or N-400s. These may appear to be small issues, but if I see this in just nine interviews, imagine the wealth of information attorneys could provide to USCIS if they merely asked.
By closing out our email liaison work, USCIS has blocked AILA attorneys’ ability to point out clear errors of law, to highlight when a child may be aging out and therefore won’t be eligible for a certain benefit, or to ask for an expedited interview for a family where the US citizen is preparing for a military deployment. This means we’ll see more litigation because we’ll be forced to appeal and potentially sue in federal court over a piddly issue that really should have been resolved in two minutes. It also means that USCIS has stopped trying to help people on an individual basis. Sickness, military service, emergencies – none of that seems to matter anymore.
Part of me gets it. Why should AILA get “special” access to USCIS over individuals who may not have representation? I would argue that it’s not special. Because we represent a significant number of customers who come before USCIS, we are uniquely positioned to be a partner. We are able to share information with our clients and the public, we are able to identify problems, and we are able to help craft solutions. We help(ed) make USCIS better and that helps everyone who comes before them. I like solving problems and liaison work was exactly that – coming to the table together to solve problems.
With these (and other) limitations and restrictions, USCIS has shown that attorneys are not to be seen as partners, but almost as enemies. It makes my heart sad because I know that many individual officers are kind, fair, and decent human beings. They all want to do good and uphold our laws. But, more and more, they are being told not to trust attorneys and not to let attorneys do their jobs (I recently had one officer tell my client not to even look at me). I hope that individual interactions will remain professional and cordial – there’s no reason for them not to. But, I am worried that the overall culture at USCIS is shifting to isolation, animosity, and increasing bureaucracy.