WASHINGTON (AP) — Lady Liberty, constructed in this case of paper-mâché, stands about 7-feet-tall or so in the corner of the office of Ken Cuccinelli, the acting director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. It overlooks Massachusetts Avenue from floor-to-ceiling windows.
It wasn’t a gift. It was meant to shame him.
Protesters left it outside the agency’s headquarters last month after Cuccinelli reinterpreted the inscription at the Statue of Liberty’s base to align it with policy changes aimed at restricting legal immigration.
Cuccinelli brought it upstairs, took a selfie, and tweeted it.
“It’s our newest office decoration!” he wrote.
Like his boss, Cuccinelli has a knack for Twitter trolling. He’s also experienced at talking-head television — another skill that pays dividends with President Donald Trump. And he’s now emerging as the public face of the president’s hard-line immigration policies.
“The most important thing is that communication was part of the charge I got from the president,” he said in an interview with The Associated Press.
“So, we just charge ahead. It’s probably the top policy of interest to the American people and it’s not going to change any time soon,” he said.
The Department of Homeland Security under Trump is making massive changes to U.S. immigration policy. It is denying asylum claims by rendering ineligible anyone who came to the U.S.-Mexico border through a third country, tightening immigration benefits, and moving toward a merit-based system. The changes are thrilling Trump’s base and enraging opponents who say the U.S. is abandoning its humanitarian mission.
Cuccinelli took over USCIS, a part of Homeland Security, a few months ago, following a White House-orchestrated staff shake up at the department that also felled then-Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen. He replaced L. Francis Cissna, who changed the motto of USCIS to delete “nation of immigrants.”
The agency manages green cards, benefits, naturalization, visas and asylum. But the various Homeland Security immigration agencies tend to blend these days with the ever-changing leaders promoting Trump’s overall immigration agenda.
They all appeared together this week in Laredo, Texas, to tour tent courts where hundreds of migrants forced to wait in Mexico pleaded their asylum cases. Cuccinelli took the lead in talking to media. He frequently comments on Twitter and TV about immigration subjects outside his agency.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection acting head Mark Morgan, another frequent TV commenter, joked that no one knows the difference among them.
“Which is a major problem in one sense, but it also gives us the opportunity to just address the issue and not have to create these buckets,” he said.
But Cuccinelli’s impact has been felt at his agency. There are reports of staff reassignments, asylum officers in tears over policy changes, and friction over increasing restrictions.
Michael Knowles, an asylum officer and spokesman for the union, AFGE National CIS Council 119, said morale among asylum officers is very low. He said Cuccinelli has scolded them for approving too many initial screenings.
“And it seemed like every administration — whether left, right or center — has supported our country’s asylum and refugee programs, because giving safe haven to the oppressed was always seen as the patriotic, American thing to do,” he said. “Until now.”
Despite the criticism, nearly 34,000 new U.S. citizens will be naturalized this week in more than 300 special ceremonies in celebration of Constitution Week. During 2018’s budget year, the agency naturalized than 756,000 people, a five-year high in new oaths of citizenship.
Cuccinelli is proud of those figures. He talked in-depth about the challenges with asylum case backlogs. He says he does not view USCIS as an immigrant benefits agency, but rather a vetting agency.
“That doesn’t mean we don’t offer benefits, but it does mean that our first obligation is to uphold the standards, including security standards,” he said.
The 51-year-old was born in Edison, New Jersey, a descendant of Italian immigrants who came through Ellis Island. He has said his relatives were required to speak English well enough to work and prove they would not be a burden to the system. He also has said it’s not possible to compare immigrants coming today with those years ago, in part because there was no “welfare state” then.
Cuccinelli has long held views on immigration that he says align closely with Trump’s. And, so far, he has the president’s enthusiastic support.
“He’s fantastic,” Trump told the morning show “Fox & Friends.” ”He’s tough as you get and smart and he’s doing much of the legal work.”
Cuccinelli’s name had been tossed around for months for an immigration-related position, but there were always concerns about his ability to be confirmed.
A former Virginia attorney general, he ran for governor in 2013 but lost to Democrat Terry McAuliffe. He has in the past advocated for denying citizenship to American-born children of parents living in the U.S. illegally.
“Mr. Cuccinelli is an anti-immigrant fringe figure. Besides being a right-wing commentator, Cuccinelli is completely unqualified … and likely wants to decimate the agency,” said the chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss.
But it wasn’t just immigration views that generated unease among senators . As the former head of the Senate Conservatives Fund, Cuccinelli was highly critical of Senate GOP leadership, once advocating for the removal of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and his entire leadership team.
Serving in an acting capacity does not require Senate confirmation. Acting directors have become common at Homeland Security, a sprawling, 240,000-person department that also handles election security and natural disasters.
“Of course, it would always be better,” Cuccinelli said of Senate confirmation. “But the most important thing is getting the job done.”
For Cuccinelli, that meant getting regulation changes finalized that could deny green cards to immigrants who use Medicaid, food stamps, housing vouchers or other forms of public assistance. Critics have argued that many immigrants won’t seek the benefits they need because they fear the consequences.
It was that change that prompted the arrival of the paper-mâché Statue of Liberty.
In a television interview, Cuccinelli had been pressed about whether the new rules contradicted the inscription at the base of the statue, written by poet Emma Lazarus , welcoming “huddled masses” of immigrants to American shores. He said Lazarus was referring to “people coming from Europe” and that the nation is looking to receive migrants “who can stand on their own two feet.” (Her biographer said the poem embraces immigrants from “all places.”)
The statue appeared after that, with a sign that read “Immigrants Welcome.”
But, Cuccinelli noted, it was missing the inscription at the base.