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President Donald Trump's administration is preparing to shutter many of its immigration operations abroad, cutting back on a key support system for those applying overseas to relocate to the United States.

The director of United States Citizenship and Immigration Services, L. Francis Cissna, told senior staff members this week that the international division, which has operations in more than 20 countries, would close down by the end of the year, according to two people with knowledge of the meeting.

Agency officials said the move was intended to provide more staff resources to handle the lengthy backlog in asylum applications from tens of thousands of migrants crossing the southern border every month. But it could come at the expense of legal migration, which Trump has said he favors. Some agency staff members said closing overseas offices will make it more difficult and time-consuming to apply to immigrate from abroad, especially for refugees already in the United States who hope to bring other family members to join them.

"This is another instance of the Trump administration halting legal immigration by denying people the opportunity to file for immigration benefits in the most expedient manner," said Margaret Stock, a former U.S. Army lieutenant colonel and an immigration attorney who frequently handles such cases.

The overseas division provides logistical assistance to American citizens, lawful permanent residents and refugees seeking to bring family members to the United States; people who have been persecuted and wish to resettle in the United States; Americans who adopt children internationally; and members of the military and their families applying for citizenship. It also plays a crucial role in immigration fraud detection.

"It will be a great blow to the quality and integrity of the legal immigration system," said Barbara Strack, who retired last year as the chief of the Refugee Affairs Division at the agency. "It will throw that system into chaos around the world."

The International Operations Division has about 240 employees working at 24 field offices in 21 countries.

Jessica Collins, a spokesman for the agency, said the proposed reorganization would shift the agency's workload to other offices but not necessarily cut back on its operations. "As we have internally shared, USCIS is in preliminary discussions to consider reallocation of its international USCIS office workloads to USCIS domestic offices in the United States and, where practicable, to U.S. embassies and consulates abroad," she said in response to emailed questions.

"The goal of any such shift would be to maximize USCIS resources that could then be reallocated, in part, to backlog reduction efforts," said Collins, who declined to elaborate further.

In recent months, the agency -- which is primarily funded by fees paid by applicants, not by American taxpayers -- has been reassigning adjudicators who handle green card and naturalization applications to process a bulging backlog of asylum claims filed by migrant families arriving at the southern border in record numbers.

"It is definitely not a preliminary discussion. It's happening," said a senior lawyer with the agency.

In cities like Amman, Jordan, Bangkok, Thailand and Nairobi, Kenya staff with the agency's International Operations Division conduct interviews with refugees whose relatives are already living in the United States and who wish to sponsor them for immigration, a process already plagued with delays because of additional layers of screening added under Trump's travel ban targeting certain nations.

A Section on 03/13/2019

Print Headline: U.S. to close immigration operations abroad

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