In February, the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services made a major, sudden, and concerning change to the principles that guide the most basic aspects of our nation’s immigration system. It all started with an email, sent out to USCIS staff by Director L. Francis Cissna, and publicly shared by The Intercept. “U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services administers the nation’s lawful immigration system, safeguarding its integrity and promise by efficiently and fairly adjudicating requests for immigration benefits while protecting Americans, securing the homeland, and honoring our values,” reads the office’s new mission statement.
If you feel like this is a far cry from the “give me your tired, your poor” vibe carried by the Statue of Liberty and other historical messages on immigration, you’re right. Up until Cissna’s decision, the USCIS mission statement had read: “USCIS secures America’s promise as a nation of immigrants by providing accurate and useful information to our customers, granting immigration and citizenship benefits, promoting an awareness and understanding of citizenship, and ensuring the integrity of our immigration system.”
The USCIS no longer identifies the United States as “a nation of immigrants.”
And while the entire ethos of the mission statement has changed, that absence of one particular line seems to really hit home the concerning pivot in national immigration policy. That’s right, the USCIS no longer identifies the United States as “a nation of immigrants.”
“It’s like a spit in the face to people who want to come here,” Rutgers University student Samuel Tuero told VICE Impact. “The fact of the matter is that our history is rooted in people coming the the United States to find a better life whether for themselves or their families.”
Tuero is the president of Rutgers University-Camden’s new chapter of Define American, a non-profit organization that houses the nation’s largest immigrant identity-focused campus organization. When he learned about the removal of “a nation of immigrants” from USCIS’ mission statement, he sprung into action, as only a campus organizer can. Even though the Define American chapter he leads hadn’t yet been formally approved by the University, Tuero got together with his chapter executive board and drafted a Change.org petition.
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“Omitting this phrase from the USCIS mission statement undermines and rejects one of the bedrock principles the United States was founded on,” the online petition reads. “It not only goes against our values as a nation, but demonstrates the current administration’s contempt for immigrants and refugees and a repudiation of our history.”
The petition is now less than 1,000 signatures away from its 50,000 signing goal.
Tuero leads one of more than 50 Define American College Chapters spread out over 26 states and the District of Columbia. The organization was started by Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, Jose Antonio Vargas, who, in 2011, became one of the first public figures to self identify as undocumented. Define American describes itself as a “nonprofit media and culture organization,” which uses storytelling and dynamic media development as a way to change the conversation around immigration and immigrant identity in the U.S..
“Omitting this phrase from the USCIS mission statement undermines and rejects one of the bedrock principles the United States was founded on."
For college chapters, that means mobilizing frank discussions at the campus level.
“It’s a culture battle that we’re fighting. We really believe that with a focus on storytelling, in folks coming out and informing their communities and fighting back against negative or misleading stereotypes and information in all types of media,” Julián Gómez, Campus Engagement Manager for Define American told VICE Impact. “And a lot of those conversations are happening in communities, specifically on college campuses.”
The campus chapters were founded on five main principles including using the power of stories, elevating conversations about American identity, and the belief that United States is, and should remain a welcoming nation.
At the most recent Chapters’ Summit held in September 2017, participating campus groups voted to instill a sixth principle, focused on protecting students through equity of education, regardless of status. “This means equal access to tuition rates, scholarships, and campus resources,” the principle reads. “We have the power and commitment to ensure that students don’t have a less fulfilling educational experience just because they weren’t born in this country.”
The chapters engage in events like story booths, open mics, art exhibits, and film screenings to maximize the unique mobilizing capacity found in higher education, while taking it beyond campus boundaries.
“I want our chapters to be a part of changing the narrative community by community. Obviously it’s a lot harder to do this at the national level if you don’t have the grassroots support,” Gómez said. “It’s time to revive the state by state, community by community effort and have folks really change minds and communities, and the national stuff will follow, and policy will follow. But we need to change perspectives first.”
It’s this idea of starting with public narrative that prompted Tuero and the Rutgers-Camden chapter to take on the USCIS through their petition.
“To be honest, I never thought it could ever be as big as it is right now. I think it’s awesome. I think it also shows that people do care and are willing to at the very least sign a petition saying ‘hey, we don’t agree with this decision. This isn’t who we are, and we’re going to make sure we stand by something’,” Tuero said. “I think people find it so trivial to change something like that. But ‘a nation of immigrants,’ that’s what we are, and yet we want to kind of brush it off like it’s not a big deal. And I think a lot of the positive reaction has been, ‘these words matter.’”
“My hope is that within the next two years we’ll be able to host and run events that not only get people more informed about immigration in general, but also a little more empathetic to the issue that these are real people."
Tuero hopes to finalize his chapter’s university inclusion in the coming months, and hit the ground running with events in the fall. The chapter has already gotten a head start by participating in New Jersey’s Day of Action along with other campus organizations, and they continue to build their student member base.
“My hope is that within the next two years we’ll be able to host and run events that not only get people more informed about immigration in general, but also a little more empathetic to the issue that these are real people,” Tuero said. “And then when they go back home and go and talk with their friends or hear certain things in their classrooms, they’ll be able to have the tools necessary to say, ‘Okay, I know this now. I can start this conversation.’ And that can continue and hopefully create that change even if it’s on a smaller level.”
Looking to change the conversation about immigration on your college campus? Find a Define American chapter at your school , or start one with the help of the Chapters Toolkit . Take a moment to sign the Rutgers-Camden chapter’s petition to tell the USCIS that you value our nation of immigrants, or take a moment to check out one of Define American’s seven other active petitions. Finally, share your own definition of American through Define American’s easy online storytelling tool, and then find out what American means to others through their story archive .