LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
The agency in charge of legal immigration has made it harder to come to the U.S. For one thing, it's taking longer than ever to get green cards and visas. Now the Trump administration is looking for a new director to lead the agency. As NPR's Joel Rose reports, immigrant advocates worry that someone even tougher than the current head will make things more difficult.
JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: Francis Cissna was a stickler for enforcing immigration law. And that seemed to make him a good fit for the Trump administration.
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FRANCIS CISSNA: I want the agency to always act lawfully. Everything we do at the agency should be guided by that.
ROSE: Cissna was the head of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services for close to two years. And by all accounts, he did a lot to tighten up enforcement. But it wasn't enough for the Trump administration. Cissna submitted his resignation last month.
MARK KRIKORIAN: My understanding is that he was insufficiently zealous in pushing the envelope.
ROSE: Mark Krikorian directs the Center for Immigration Studies, a nonprofit that has advised the Trump administration and advocates for lower levels of immigration. Krikorian says Cissna got the job done in a way that could stand up to legal challenges.
KRIKORIAN: Cissna was an immigration hawk before that was cool in the Republican Party. And so it's ironic that the most knowledgeable person on immigration in the whole administration, who is actually committed to the president's agenda, is the one that got the heave-ho.
ROSE: Immigrant advocates are dismayed about this, too, but for different reasons. The White House is pushing for an even tougher crackdown on asylum-seekers who are flooding the Southern border. And immigration lawyers worry that the next head of USCIS will try to deliver, even if that skirts the law. Shev Dalal-Dheini worked at the agency for over a decade. She recently left for a job at the American Immigration Lawyers Association.
SHEV DALAL-DHEINI: I think you're going to have a lot more of everything that's going on now - a lot more litigation, a lot more backlog, a lot more chaos (laughter).
ROSE: One name that's been floated for the job - Ken Cuccinelli, the former attorney general of Virginia, who argues that states should invoke quote, "war powers" to turn away what he calls an invasion of asylum-seekers. Here's Cuccinelli talking to a Breitbart radio show last year.
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KEN CUCCINELLI: You don't have to keep them - no catch and release, no nothing. You just point them back across the river, and let them swim for it.
ROSE: But Cuccinelli's nomination would face opposition in Congress, even from Republicans. Cuccinelli runs a conservative group that's funded campaigns against Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and others. For now there's an acting director at USCIS, which is part of the Department of Homeland Security. And the White House may be underestimating how hard it is to push new policies through the bureaucracy, so says Doug Rand. He served as an adviser to President Obama, who tried to shift immigration policy in the opposite direction.
DOUG RAND: I actually have some sympathy for the White House because when I was in their shoes, Obama announced executive actions on immigration. We had two years to get them all done. And DHS could not move fast enough.
ROSE: All this has real-life consequences. Immigrants and their families are frustrated because they're waiting longer for visas and green cards, more than 40% longer over the last two years.
CAROLYN YAKAR: I find it the most infuriating because I feel like our marriage is so obviously genuine.
ROSE: Carolyn Yakar (ph) is a U.S. citizen who lives in Turkey with her husband. He's trying to get a green card. And Yakar says it could be a year or more before USCIS gets to their application.
YAKAR: To know that it's sitting in a pile, you know, just waiting with millions of other cases - yeah. It's just a burden on our families that seems really unfair.
ROSE: And that pile of applications is only getting bigger.
Joel Rose, NPR News, Washington.
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