3 suggestions to build a better US Citizenship and Immigration Services

An open letter to the Biden Administration, from a former USCIS attorney, arguing for a better agency, not just better policies

The views expressed in this article were prepared in my personal capacity. They are my own and do not reflect the views of my employer.

San Francisco Women’s March, January 21, 2017. Photo by Chandrashekar Raghavan.

I was an attorney with US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) when Trump took office. About a year into his administration, I attended a lecture given by Sally Yates in San Francisco. Afraid to leave my secure and well-paying job, but increasingly uncertain and ashamed of my employer, I was desperate for guidance on what to do. And I wasn’t receiving much from within my own agency.

Ms. Yates acknowledged the particular difficulty government employees face when considering whether to leave their jobs to pursue an often uncertain future outside of government. She advised career civil servants to understand their red lines and to stay in their positions until one of those lines is crossed.

I would like to share the thoughts I was unable to express during the last transition because I was still within the government.

I don’t remember the exact day the Trump administration crossed one of my red lines, but after about a year I knew it had. If I remained, I had a duty to execute Trump’s policies. But I needed to tell my future kids that I did something when our government put children in cages and scapegoated immigrants to win cheap political points (especially given their father is an immigrant). Feeling deeply uncertain, I made the leap to the private sector. Now that Trump is heading out of DC and Biden is preparing to take office, I would like to share the thoughts I was unable to express during the last transition because I was still within the government.

Policies matter, but systems matter just as much

I am not sharing thoughts on specific immigration policies because there are a ton of smart people addressing these important issues already. Instead, I am asking the Biden administration to also prioritize the health of USCIS as an organization and to build a world-class agency capable of implementing his agenda. Our country may not be ready to unify behind the same immigration policy goals. But I believe we can unify behind the goal of building a world-class government agency, because the American spirit is best exemplified by our ability to be smart, work hard, innovate, and build.

This is not a novel thought. Marc Andreessen’s recent article, It’s Time to Build, struck a chord with me and inspired me to write this. In the article, Mr. Andreessen stated that the US must “separate the imperative to build . . . from ideology and politics.” He calls on the left to not simply champion the public sector but to “prove it is the superior model!” He went on: “Demonstrate that the public sector can build better hospitals, better schools, better transportation, better cities, better housing. Stop trying to protect the old, the entrenched, the irrelevant; commit the public sector fully to the future. Milton Friedman once said the great public sector mistake is to judge policies and programs by their intentions rather than their results. Instead of taking that as an insult, take it as a challenge — build new things and show the results!”

To the Biden administration, I say: build a world-class USCIS! Do it to honor the millions of immigrants who came to this country and helped build the strongest, most innovative economy in the world. Do it because USCIS employees deserve to take pride in their work. Do it because the people immigrating to our country, and the Americans who petition for them, deserve an excellent experience whenever they interact with the US government. And to my conservative friends, I want to remind you that “an excellent experience” does not mean every customer gets a rubber stamped approval on their immigration application. It means that no matter who they are, their case is adjudicated professionally, fairly, transparently, and humanely — whether the outcome is an approval or a denial.

Building the USCIS of the future

Starting today, the Biden administration should prioritize the transformation of USCIS into a world-class organization. There are two dimensions to achieving this. One is having the right tools, such as data-driven decision making frameworks and automation. The other has to do with the people and the health of the organization. I want to focus on the latter because I believe a healthy organization with subpar tools can still be successful whereas the reverse is seldom true. In order to build an agency and a workforce that is willing and able to innovate, I recommend the team focus on the following three tasks during the first 100 days:

1. Give civil servants a better framework for navigating political divisions in the workplace

Immigration has become a deeply divisive issue in our country, and it’s hard to envision that we, as individual citizens, could coalesce around a unified immigration policy anytime soon. USCIS employees have strong opinions about immigration and their views are as deeply held and deeply divided as the rest of the country’s. Based on my experience, the swings from Bush to Obama to Trump to Biden continue to deepen the political divide within the agency. And now that once unknown and nuanced immigration issues dominate the nightly news, it’s harder for employees to keep their personal views and allegiances out of their work. It’s time for USCIS to acknowledge that their employees’ work environment has become politicized and to provide employees with a stronger framework for thinking about and appropriately discussing political divisions in the workplace.

It’s time for USCIS to acknowledge that their employees’ work environment has become politicized and to provide employees with a stronger framework for thinking about and appropriately discussing political divisions in the workplace.

There seems to be an assumption that career employees are magically anointed with a deep understanding of their role as non-political actors in our government system, but in reality I had a lot of questions and there was very little real information on the topic. During the first year of Trump’s administration, I feared the simple act of admitting I was struggling with this issue and seeking guidance would itself be a violation of my duty to be non-political. Receiving limited guidance on this issue from my agency and afraid to ask for further help, I ultimately had nowhere to turn but to Sally Yates’ lecture and old episodes of The West Wing.

There seems to be an assumption that career employees are magically anointed with a deep understanding of their role as non-political actors in our government system, but in reality I had a lot of questions and there was very little real information on the topic.

When Biden takes office, employees will again feel the whiplash of an abrupt change in policy, requiring them to balance their duty to remain neutral with their own deeply held political beliefs. When this happens, please do not abandon your field attorneys, your mid-level managers, and your immigration officers across the country. Instead, give your employees the tools they need to navigate the uncertainty of a politically charged transition period so they can remain focused on their real work: adjudicating our country’s immigration cases.

To do this, I recommend educating your career employees on the difference between a political role and a career role, what it means to be a career civil servant, why it matters that career employees remain non-political, and the applicable law and policy upon which these principles are based. Give your employees a framework for thinking through these issues and appropriately talking about them. Issue written guidance in SOPs and the Policy Manual outlining career employees’ responsibilities to remain non-political as it relates to the specific tasks they perform. Do not leave this guidance unwritten, and do not simply rely on computer-based trainings about the Hatch Act to achieve this goal. Take ownership of the problem and ensure that when you leave office, USCIS’s career civil servants continue to seamlessly adjudicate our nation’s immigration cases regardless of their personal beliefs and the political storms raging across the country.

2. Establish a clear and transparent process for announcing and executing the administration’s policy changes

Part of the uncertainty and confusion I experienced in Trump’s first year stemmed from his administration’s sloppy process for executing policy changes. Tweets and executive orders do not provide the nitty gritty details necessary to actually implement a new policy at scale. And when a tweet or an executive order is issued days/weeks/months before the nitty gritty details are cascaded down through the agency, there is an inevitable period of uncertainty. For me, when my personal beliefs were not aligned with the administration’s new policy, it was hard to navigate the grey areas. Was I waiting to execute a new policy because, as a field attorney, I needed to wait for implementing guidance from the proper channels? Or was I stalling because I didn’t want to implement it? When these grey areas arose, I rarely found clear, written guidance on how to act. Instead, I usually found hushed conversations, speculation, and gossip.

The Biden team should develop a clear and transparent framework for rolling out their policy changes, so the moment a policy change hits the news, everyone in the agency, from the top down, understands how the change impacts their daily work and has the appropriate written guidance to implement that change immediately. Additionally, because the Biden administration will not be able to roll out all of their policy changes on January 20, it should issue written guidance on exactly how the agency should proceed in the interim. Do not leave your employees uncertain about how they should navigate the grey areas.

The Biden team should develop a clear and transparent framework for rolling out their policy changes, so the moment a policy change hits the news, everyone in the agency, from the top down, understands how the change impacts their daily work and has the appropriate written guidance to implement that change immediately.

After the new administration has established their process for announcing and implementing policy changes, the folks drafting those policies should work backwards from the adjudicators who will actually implement the changes. Put yourselves in the shoes of a new immigration officer adjudicating 10 cases a day, or a mid-level manager ensuring the accuracy of her team’s work, or a field attorney reviewing NTAs and written denials for legal sufficiency. Does the language of your policy guidance give all of these people clear instructions on what to do? I suggest you bring these people into the room when you draft your policies and implementing guidance, and ask them some questions. Could they implement this policy change today, without further instructions? Do they see any red flags or ambiguities that could undermine their office’s ability to execute the change? Will this guidance cause any problems with other policies or processes in their offices? Work backwards from your adjudicators when you draft your new policies to ensure they can properly execute them on day one.

Informing your employees and empowering them to execute your policies immediately will have the added benefit of improving their morale. There’s nothing more deflating as an employee than learning about your agency’s policy decisions from the news. For example, employees were recently updated about potential furloughs when they read about it in the Washington Post, rather than receiving the updates from their agency/management themselves. Leaving your employees out of the loop when you make major changes to their work and their lives erodes their trust in the organization and decimates morale.

3. Understand your employees’ incentives and align them with your goals

In order to make lasting changes to a giant federal agency like USCIS, you need to align your employees’ incentives with your goals. I worked at USCIS during the Obama administration and experienced significant pushback from career employees to the changes he implemented. I think there’s a chance that a better understanding of the employees’ incentives could have enabled better messaging, better alignment of incentives, and ultimately better execution. This is not a recommendation that the administration convince employees that the substance of their policies is correct; rather, it’s a recommendation to align your employees’ incentives with the implementation of the policies.

This is not a recommendation that the administration convince employees that the substance of their policies is correct; rather, it’s a recommendation to align your employees’ incentives with the implementation of the policies.

To understand your employees’ incentives, I recommend you send some smart people into the field, roll up your sleeves, and understand what your employees’ days look like. Most importantly, understand their incentives and whether those incentives are aligned with your policy goals. For example, it takes a lot of work to deny a naturalization application because an officer must draft a written denial that could withstand the scrutiny of appeal. An approval, on the other hand, simply requires the officer to plop an approval stamp on the application — no written analysis required. While an officer who grants a lot of cases may appear to be generous or pro-immigrant, there’s a chance they just want to avoid writing denials. On the other hand, certain managers are known to promote officers who deny a lot of cases for fraud, perhaps because this is one of the ways for officers to differentiate themselves (since denials require the officer to show their work). In that kind of office culture, if an officer wants to get promoted and earn a decent salary to support her family, she needs to find a lot of fraud — at times even where none exists. While this officer may appear jaded or anti-immigrant, she may simply want to advance in her career and make more money. Understanding these incentives is important to understanding how offices work, and you can implement your policies with greater success if you align your employees’ incentives with your goals.

You should also dig into other teams’ processes, such as fraud investigators and attorneys, to ensure those teams’ incentives are aligned with your goals. If cases lag too long with the fraud investigators, review the investigators’ incentives. Is their performance review in any way tied to your goals of efficiency and timeliness? If not, change them. Do a similar process with attorneys. If cases languish on attorneys’ desks, ensure attorneys have the proper incentives to move cases quickly. When incentives are aligned, the ancillary teams will be motivated to work more efficiently, perhaps automate routine tasks, and hopefully triage cases more carefully so they never land on their desk in the first place.

If you start aligning your employees’ incentives with your administration’s goals, you will motivate employees to help you achieve those goals. In the private sector, companies do this by offering stock options as part of total compensation, tying an employee’s own financial security to the company’s. Government can do something similar by tying performance review criteria and promotion pathways to the administration’s goals. For example, if the Biden administration wants USCIS employees to treat immigrants with more respect and humanity, they must ensure that behavior leads to excellent performance reviews, career growth opportunities, and promotions.

*One note about this section. I do not know whether it is legal (or within current ethics guidelines or policies) for USCIS political appointees to alter career employees’ performance criteria for the the purpose of achieving a policy goal, and I understand there is some danger here. For example, if the Trump administration wanted to rubber stamp denials without providing proper written analysis for appeal, I would say that is wrong. And I would say the Biden administration would be wrong to incentivize officers to rubber stamp approvals without proper review. Clearly there are boundaries.

I think this issue perfectly illustrates the need for suggestion #1 above: USCIS should publish written guidance explaining the rules an administration must follow in order to legally and ethically alter the performance criteria of its civil service workforce for the purpose of achieving a policy goal (or any goal — including those that are not politically motivated). The guidance should be unbiased and it should include exhaustive references to the law and policy upon which it is based, which likely includes some mix administrative law, employment law (dealing with unions), ethics guidelines, and/or longstanding policy. This analysis should be written and made available to USCIS and the public, so all administrations are held accountable to it now and in the future. Once the rules are clear, administrations should have the ability to work within those rules to align their employees’ incentives with their own goals. And employees should know what the rules are so they know the administration is working within them.

In conclusion, I’m asking Biden’s administration to prioritize the health of USCIS as an organization, and to do this by accomplishing the following 3 tasks in the first 100 days: (1) build a framework for employees to navigate political divisions in the workplace, (2) establish a clear and transparent process for announcing and executing the administration’s policy changes, and (3) align your employees’ incentives with your goals. When these pieces are in place, your team can start the important work of transforming USCIS into a world-class agency capable of implementing your most ambitious immigration policies.

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