President Donald Trump plans to install Ken Cuccinelli as the new director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, placing the conservative activist and former Virginia attorney general at the head of the agency that runs the country’s legal immigration system, administration officials said Friday.
L. Francis Cissna, the agency’s current director, has told his staff that he will leave his post June 1.
The move extends the purge of senior leadership at the Department of Homeland Security, replacing Cissna, a Senate-confirmed agency head with deep expertise on immigration law, with Cuccinelli, a conservative firebrand disliked by senior GOP figures, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.
McConnell has vowed to block Cuccinelli from getting confirmed for any position, blaming him for leading a 2014 effort defying McConnell that promoted insurgent candidates running against sitting Republican incumbents. And Cuccinelli signed a letter drafted by conservative activists two years ago calling on McConnell to step aside.
After Cuccinelli was rumored as a potential DHS secretary, McConnell told reporters he had communicated with the White House about his opposition.
“I have expressed my, shall I say, lack of enthusiasm for one of them . . . Ken Cuccinelli,” McConnell said.
Cuccinelli, known more recently for combative television appearances and enthusiasm for the president’s immigration proposals, is even more disliked by Democrats.
Trump senior policy adviser Stephen Miller has been agitating for Cissna’s removal for months, and he has repeatedly railed about Cissna to the president, saying he is not in favor of the administration’s agenda and has delayed some of its biggest initiatives – while not writing enough regulations.
Miller also faulted Cissna for moving too slowly in implementing new rules that would penalize immigrants who use public benefits, expanding the agency’s ability to deny visas on the grounds that an applicant could be considered a “public charge.” The proposed changes triggered more than 200,000 public comments, all requiring a response from the agency.
Cuccinelli’s new role could include other duties outside of CIS, an administration official said Friday.
Miller agitated to have Cissna fired during the last DHS purge, officials said, but a number of Republican senators – including Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa – rallied to Cissna’s defense. A senior White House official who spoke on the condition of anonymity said Cissna was temporarily saved after Trump saw how many influential Republicans, and even hard-line immigration hawks, were praising him.
But the reprieve was short-lived, and Trump’s decision to add Cuccinelli to the department earlier this week set up potential conflicts within DHS leadership, where there was no clear vacancy for him.
White House aides have scrambled to figure out exactly what Cuccinelli would be doing in the administration, officials said, and the move Friday places him at the forefront of Trump’s plans to overhaul the country’s legal immigration system.
Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law, is leading a White House effort to reorient the agency toward a “merit-based” immigration system that will prioritize job skills over the current family reunification model, which the president denounces as “chain migration.”
Cissna, the son of an immigrant mother from Peru, is a bespectacled career bureaucrat who quotes classics and is fluent in Spanish. He fits in well with academics and policy wonks, and he prioritizes following immigration law to the letter.
His relationship with Miller has long been frosty – at one point in a conference call during a debate over asylum laws in 2018, Cissna said “Enough!” to Miller, who he believed was pressuring government officials to ignore immigration laws.
Cissna’s supporters – including immigration hard-liners – say he actually had more success than his border enforcement peers at Homeland Security in implementing the Trump administration’s agenda. He heightened scrutiny of legal immigration applications while continuing to naturalize thousands of lawful immigrants.
But immigration lawyers and Democrats have criticized Cissna for throwing sand in the gears of the nation’s legal immigration system. In February, lawmakers wrote to Cissna saying processing delays in the agency had reached “crisis levels” that were preventing relatives of U.S. citizens and others from working legally and paying their bills. Among the green card and visa applicants are domestic-abuse survivors, children and others, they said.
Cissna also generated controversy last year by removing the phrase “nation of immigrants” from the USCIS mission statement.
In a farewell letter to staff Friday, obtained by The Washington Post, Cissna said he submitted his resignation “at the request of the President.”
“It gives me great pride to reflect upon the many strides we have made in a relatively short period of time to carry out our statutory mission and ensure that you’re appropriately trained and empowered to carry out your individual duties and responsibilities under the law,” Cissna wrote. “I also know we have carefully and purposefully laid the groundwork for many more, much-needed, lawful reforms to come in the near future.”