What do you think? Leave a respectful comment.

Why Ken Cuccinelli says Trump’s immigration policies are ‘consistent with the law’

Acting director of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services Ken Cuccinelli on Thursday defended his agency’s new rules on how citizenship is awarded to some children born overseas in what he claims as a simple change in “paperwork,” but acknowledged the rollout was poorly executed. 

“We obviously could have communicated this a lot better,” he told PBS NewsHour’s Judy Woodruff. “But it is almost nothing. It affects, in paperwork only, about 20 to 25 people a year.”

On Wednesday, a memo from USCIS announced that living on a U.S. military base or diplomatic facilities overseas would no longer satisfy a “residency” requirement for securing U.S. citizenship for a child who is not otherwise automatically a citizen at birth. Those families will face more red tape. 

Cuccinelli said reports that his agency was changing the criteria for citizenship were incorrect. 

“The only thing that has changed here is the forms they have to fill out, the process they have to go through, to get that child to be a U.S. citizen. That is it,” he said.

Cuccinelli said his agency’s previous policy had not been in sync with the State Department policy on issuing passports, and was not in compliance with the law. 

Other highlights from the interview:

  • Medical deferred action: Cuccinelli defended his agency’s recent move to stop issuing deferred action for medical purposes — a policy that allowed immigrants subject to deportation the ability to stay in the U.S. while receiving medical treatment. “No one gets deferred action who is here legally,” he said. “That is only for people who are not here legally. They are illegally here.” He said his agency shouldn’t be granting relief from deportation, as it is “not a law enforcement agency.” “That’s left for ICE to do,” he said. He went on to say that humanitarian exceptions could be granted on a case-by-case basis, but acknowledged that immigrants without legal status would have to ask ICE, the enforcement agency, for them.
  • Public charge rule: Cuccinelli also defended the move to tighten the “public charge” rule that denies green cards to legal residents and visa holders who are currently using, or are expected to use, government benefits. “Are you now saying that America doesn’t want people who need any help?” Woodruff asked.  “The American people want immigrants who are self sufficient and that means who won’t go on these sorts of welfare programs,” he said.  “We are not the welfare provider for the world.”

Read the Full Transcript

  • Judy Woodruff:

    It is a shift in the process of determining who can be a U.S. citizen.

    The latest move on immigration by the Trump administration at first sparked confusion and outrage yesterday. The rule is smaller in scope than initially thought, but still says that some children born to Americans living abroad working for the U.S. military or as diplomats will no longer automatically be U.S. citizens.

    We want to take time now to clarify this move and look at the administration's broader strategy on immigration with Ken Cuccinelli. He is the acting director of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. And he joins me now.

    And thank you for being here at the "NewsHour."

  • Ken Cuccinelli:

    Judy, good to be with you.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, let's — a lot of changes. They have been coming fast and furious in the field of immigration, and as we have been listening to Amna, in citizenship and immigration.

    But what I want to ask you about this new policy is just — we have just learned about it this week. It ends automatic citizenship for…

  • Ken Cuccinelli:

    No. No.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    OK. It ends automatic citizenship…

  • Ken Cuccinelli:

    No.

    (CROSSTALK)

  • Judy Woodruff:

    May I just state it? And then you can correct it if you disagree.

    But ends automatic citizenship for some children born to U.S. citizens who are stationed abroad either working for the U.S. government as diplomats or the military?

  • Ken Cuccinelli:

    Yes.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Why this move?

  • Ken Cuccinelli:

    Well, first of all, the statement about who becomes a citizen at birth is not correct.

    All the same people still become citizens at birth. This is — and, for your viewers, this is all about people outside the United States. Some people have said, oh, this is birthright citizenship. It's other things.

    It has nothing to do with being born in the U.S. It is for people who are born outside the United States who are not U.S. citizens when they are born. And, already, that was true before or after.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But one of their parents is a U.S. citizen.

  • Ken Cuccinelli:

    No, doesn't — that — not necessarily. Not necessarily.

    And the only thing that has changed here is the forms they have to fill out, the process they have to go through to get that child to be a U.S. citizen. That is it. We didn't change a single person who would be — or would or could become a U.S. citizen before or after.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But why do this?

    Excuse me for interrupting.

  • Ken Cuccinelli:

    That's an excellent question.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Why do this?

  • Ken Cuccinelli:

    Because the Department of State obviously also issues travel documents.

    We issue various visas and other documents. And USCIS, the agency I lead, wasn't conforming to the law. And there is a very specific thing that was wrong. Let me finish, please.

    So somebody could go through the process we have now and show up to get a passport to travel home for their child, and they wouldn't get a passport. The State Department wouldn't recognize them as a citizen, because what we were doing didn't — didn't comply with the law.

    So we have brought ourselves in compliance with the law and all the same people can still become citizens.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But the bottom line is that it makes it somewhat more difficult to become a citizen.

  • Ken Cuccinelli:

    No. No.

    I checked this earlier today. It doesn't even take longer. There's still paperwork, but it's different paperwork.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So you're saying this has all been a lot of fuss over nothing?

  • Ken Cuccinelli:

    Yes.

    And we obviously could have communicated this a lot better, but it is almost nothing. It affects, in paperwork only, about 20 to 25 people a year. And we came to that number by looking back through how many people fell in these categories in previous years.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    All right. Well, we appreciate having that clarification directly from you.

  • Ken Cuccinelli:

    Well, I appreciate you letting me clarify it.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And I do want to ask you about some other changes, though.

  • Ken Cuccinelli:

    Sure.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Just in the last few days, the administration has changed the policy, as we understand it, around how immigrants with dire health conditions are treated.

    Previously, they were granted what's called medical deferred action, which is a special status that allows them to remain in the country legally, receive Medicaid, if necessary, and work while they get medical treatment.

    But now we are told tens of thousands of people who have serious health conditions, whether cancer, cystic fibrosis, are subject to being — to losing their ability to stay.

  • Ken Cuccinelli:

    Right.

    And we have a B visa, a tourist visa, which can also be used for medical treatment for people who are here. No one gets deferred action who is here legally. That is only for people who are not here legally.

    And it is — just as it says here, it…

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Correct. They're here undocumented.

  • Ken Cuccinelli:

    Right. They're illegally here.

    And so ICE is the enforcing agency some. And this isn't just about medical. This is about USCIS, a non-enforcement agency — we're not a law enforcement agency — some years ago started issuing deferences, which we don't — which isn't appropriate for us.

    That's left for ICE to do. And it only happens once people are removable from the country.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But you're asking — let me just point out, you're asking people who are in this situation with a very sick family member to turn to an enforcement agency to let them know that they are here in an undocumented status.

    And let me just bring it to a personal level. We saw the story of a mother from Honduras. She has a 16-year-old son with cystic fibrosis. He is being treated in Boston. His older sister has already died of cystic fibrosis. His mother says, if he can't continue this treatment, he will die.

    So what's the reason for squeezing people in these circumstances?

  • Ken Cuccinelli:

    Well, obviously, this family is not targeted, Judy.

    What was going on before — and it started sometime ago and has now raised expectations — it's raised yours, it's raised others — is — wasn't consistent with the law. It was a law that says, on a case-by-case basis, this can be granted. It was granted across the board.

    So now it will be granted on a case-by-case basis. And humanitarian basis is a basis to grant this sorts of relief. So it can still be granted to that sort of — the family in you example.

    But let's remember, these people also can get B visas and come here legally to do all of these things.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But just quickly, again, it's making it harder for them to do that.

    I do want to ask you about another…

  • Ken Cuccinelli:

    Only in the sense that they actually have to now go do something.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Another new rule enacted under your agency, the so-called public charge rule…

  • Ken Cuccinelli:

    Yes.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    … under which the government will deny green cards to legal U.S. residents and visa holders currently using or expected to use government benefits, like food stamps, Medicaid, housing assistance.

    My question is, how does this comport with America's long history of welcoming — I mean, you go back to huddled masses yearning to be free. Are you now saying America doesn't want people who need any help?

  • Ken Cuccinelli:

    You know, that's an excellent question, Judy.

    Under federal law, all the way back to 1882, over almost 140 years, we have required people coming to this country to meet these sorts of standards, to be self-sufficient. And the American people want immigrants who are self-sufficient.

    And that means that won't go on these sorts of welfare programs. And it isn't all welfare programs. And even Medicaid is only for adults. It isn't for people under 21 and so forth.

    But that's a longstanding requirement of American law, and it's a core value. So…

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But is it a core value that goes back to the founding of this country?

  • Ken Cuccinelli:

    It is. It goes back to 1645 in Massachusetts.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But people were welcomed into this country who were, again, your huddled masses yearning to be free.

  • Ken Cuccinelli:

    Yes.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    People came to this country with nothing at all and have turned and made something…

  • Ken Cuccinelli:

    And tens of thousands of them — tens of thousands of them were turned back as expected to be public charges.

    And that is a — that has long been part of the law. The law we passed this rule for was implemented on a strong bipartisan basis in 1996 and signed by Bill Clinton.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But the point of it appears to be to squeeze the definition of who can be an American.

    Is that what you and the administration are trying to do? My question is — you're clearly trying to make it harder to become a U.S. citizen.

  • Ken Cuccinelli:

    For people who can't support themselves in America, who would go on welfare in the future.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And why are they not welcome?

  • Ken Cuccinelli:

    For the same reasons — you referred to the American tradition.

    And this is straight out of the American tradition, both legally and historically. We — this is the most generous and welcoming nation in the history of the world when it comes to this immigration.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Even with this new definition?

  • Ken Cuccinelli:

    And we have always expected people to stand on their own two feet and to be self-sufficient and to — we are not the welfare provider for the world. And this is just continuing that tradition.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But, again — and forgive me if I'm repeating myself — in the beginning, this was a country that welcomed people of all circumstances. The poorest people on the planet were welcome to come to this country and to make something of themselves.

  • Ken Cuccinelli:

    Poor people can still come to this country.

    But they — and when you look — so, we have focused on the welfare benefits in our short discussion here. It's one factor among many. And it is always only one factor among many.

    So let's take the truly impoverished folks who might — who have used welfare benefits up to the time they're considered for that green card. Please let me just finish. But, during that time, they have also gotten a plumbing certification. They have a job.

    They have — those are other factors. They have gotten education they didn't have before. All of those can offset the use of welfare benefits. The point is that they can stand on their own in the future as they live here long-term with us as fellow Americans.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Are you saying the ideal portrait of an American is different from what it was in the very beginning of this country?

  • Ken Cuccinelli:

    No. An excellent question.

    You know, it has been — well, we will take — I'm from Virginia, the beginning in 1607. I assume we're a little different from then, but for 140 years, the American people have strongly supported and had in law — and we do today — the requirement that the people we welcome here will stand on their own and be self-sufficient.

    Self-sufficiency is one of those core values that makes America unique. And we expect it to continue.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And I'm sure you know many Americans see that differently.

  • Ken Cuccinelli:

    I understand that. I do understand.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    They still see this country as a place with open arms, rather than closed ones.

  • Ken Cuccinelli:

    And I do too. And I do too.

    And this isn't closing our arms, but it is expecting people to carry their own weight and not expecting to come here and for us to carry them, as fellow Americans or legal permanent residents, which is what a green card is.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Ken Cuccinelli, acting director of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, thank you.

  • Ken Cuccinelli:

    Judy, good to be with you.

Listen to this Segment

The Latest