By Angelo A. Paparelli

The English nursery rhyme was wrong.  Not only do sticks and stones break our bones, but words can also hurt us.  A lot.  This is the lesson recently imparted by Tracy Renaud, the Acting Director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS).  In a recent internal memorandum, Renaud is insisting on a new set of descriptors for the foreign citizens whom her agency serves, banishing into exile the word, “alien,” and the phrase, “illegal alien.” Henceforth, USCIS will use more inclusive language such as “noncitizen,” “undocumented noncitizen,” or “undocumented individual.” See the reports in Axios and BuzzFeed News.

This is a welcome change.  For far too long, the exhausting and fearsome journey of U.S. immigration has been made more difficult by the hurtful taunt, “alien,” a word employed throughout the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA).  Reportedly, the Biden Administration in its comprehensive reform bill would likewise excise the offensive word, and substitute “noncitizen” at every point where  “alien” now appears in the INA, the U.S. Code, uncodified statutes, and all agency regulations and executive branch communications (something California did in 2015, while opting instead for “foreign national,” rather than “noncitizen”).  In addition, we understand that U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers have likewise received instructions to remove the word, “alien,” from its template notices to employers that, following a Form I-9 (Employment Eligibility Verification)  investigation, “unauthorized aliens” have been found on the employer’s payroll.

But instructing officers to use less offensive appellations is only a first step.  Establishing a customer-service ethos at USCIS is even more important, as is “actual proof” that the public, noncitizens, and U.S. businesses need to see in order to become believers.

USCIS can  begin by restoring its mission statement to reflect our heritage as a nation of immigrants who have contributed immensely to our betterment, as espoused by many organizations, e.g., the Alliance of Business Immigration Lawyers.  Better yet, the American public must hold USCIS accountable and accessible to all stakeholders. The need for improved customer service has never been greater, as the American Immigration Lawyers Association reports in a recent policy brief, “Walled Off: How USCIS Has Closed Its Doors on Customers and Strayed from Its Statutory Customer Service Mission.”

Fortunately, President Biden recognizes the urgency.  On February 2, 2021, he issued Executive Order 14012, “Restoring Faith in Our Legal Immigration Systems and Strengthening Integration and Inclusion Efforts for New Americans,”  which, among other provisions , mandates that “immigration processes and other benefits [be] delivered effectively and efficiently.” Section 3 of the Order  requires the Secretary of State, the Attorney General, and the Secretary of Homeland Security (in which USCIS resides) to devise a plan within 90 days to “identify barriers that impede access to immigration benefits and fair, efficient adjudications of these benefits and make recommendations on how to remove these barriers, as appropriate and consistent with applicable law.”  The good Secretaries and the AG need not look far for suggestions on improving the current system. See, e.g., “Big-Picture, Clean-Slate Immigration Reforms for the Biden-Harris Administration,” “Deregulating Legal Immigration: A Blueprint for Agency Action,” and “4 ways the Biden administration can improve the employment-based immigration system without Congress.”

Those of us who have practiced in this field over the tenures of many presidents know that big-ticket change is possible.  Where there is the will , the budget, and vocal popular support, a groundswell of positive reforms can unfold.  Fingers crossed, customer service at USCIS will soon improve, and our faith and trust might yet be restored. One can only hope.

* * *

For our part, Seyfarth’s Business Immigration Group is doing its best to improve customer service.  To “simplify the immigration journey,” we’ve just launched Caribou, our proprietary, interactive technology platform for immigration case management, document automation, data access, reporting and analysis, as Bloomberg Law reports. (Check out the cool video in the Caribou link.)