Matt Orlando/The Christian Science Monitor
Ken Cuccinelli, the acting director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, speaks with reporters at a Monitor Breakfast at the St. Regis Hotel in Washington on Oct. 16, 2019.

Trump official: Birthright citizenship can end without amending Constitution

At a Monitor Breakfast, acting USCIS Director Ken Cuccinelli said, 'The question is, do you need congressional action or can the executive act on their own?' 

Ken Cuccinelli, acting director of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services office, is widely seen as a top prospect to become the next secretary of Homeland Security. He and President Donald Trump see eye to eye in their hard-line views on immigration. 

But there’s a problem: Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has no use for Mr. Cuccinelli, and that could make him unconfirmable by the Senate. The former attorney general of Virginia used to lead a group focused on challenging incumbent Republican senators from the right, including Senator McConnell. 

Speaking to reporters Wednesday at a Monitor Breakfast, Mr. Cuccinelli made clear that he wants to be judged on his current job performance, not his past political activities. 

“I led the Senate Conservatives Fund, not one of his favorite organizations, which may be the understatement of the breakfast so far,” Mr. Cuccinelli said of Senator McConnell. “But his concerns were political. And I don’t know how he would answer, but I think an objective observer would note that I haven’t engaged in any of that political realm since I’ve taken this role.”

The current acting secretary of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), Kevin McAleenan, announced his resignation last Friday, the latest  departure from an administration known for record-high turnover. The immigration issue, in particular, is a high-stakes, high-stress realm in the Trump era. 

Mr. Cuccinelli revealed that he met with senators Tuesday and expected to talk to more Wednesday, but not Mr. McConnell. 

“In terms of pursuing the president’s agenda, we’ve been doing a good job at USCIS,” Mr. Cuccinelli said. “That’s what I would ask those folks to be judging me on.”

USCIS deals with legal immigration, and has stirred controversy with new rules that would limit access to visas and legal residency permits known as green cards. One rule, issued in August, expanded the definition of “public charge” - that is, forms of public assistance that could exclude an applicant from receiving a green card. That rule was due to go into effect Oct. 15, but was blocked temporarily Oct. 11 by federal judges. 

“To a certain extent, we intended to send the message that we expect self-sufficiency among family and employment immigrants,” Mr. Cuccinelli said. “It doesn't apply in the humanitarian space to refugees and asylees and so forth.”

The USCIS chief saw a clear political agenda in the injunctions. 

“It is telling to see some of the language of some of the judges,” Mr. Cuccinelli said. “I mean, it reads more like a hotly written op-ed by a political activist than a legal decision by a neutral arbiter.”

The C-SPAN video of the breakfast can be viewed here.

Other topics at the breakfast included “birthright citizenship,” the future of young undocumented immigrants protected during the Obama administration, and why the administration is restricting legal immigration at a time when the U.S. economy needs workers. Here are excerpts: 

On changing birthright citizenship, or automatic citizenship for almost anyone born in the U.S., as enshrined in the 14th Amendment of the Constitution:

“I do not think you need an amendment to the Constitution. I think the question is, do you need congressional action or can the executive act on their own?” 

Mr. Trump has focused on the issue periodically, but Mr. Cuccinelli said it hasn’t come up much in his work at USCIS. 

On beneficiaries of the Obama-era program known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, the focus of a Supreme Court case to be heard Nov. 12: 

“Presuming that that law is found to be as illegal as President Obama said it was over 20 times before he signed it, then it departs the legal world. And those people will be in the position as they are today. They're here illegally under whatever circumstances they may have come. They will join the ranks of millions of people in that circumstance.

“But I rather expect to see some discussion at the congressional-presidential level over that. I think the president has already sort of publicly signaled that he's willing to do that, as have members of Congress on both sides of the aisle.”

On what happens to DACA recipients if Congress and White House can’t reach a deal: 

“Well, then they're in the same pool as the - if M.I.T. is correct - the 22 million people who are here illegally. They don't have any orders against them, but they're not here with legal presence and they're under the same legal potential as others in that state.”

On why the Trump administration is restricting access to legal immigration at a time when the U.S. economy needs more workers: 

“This last fiscal year, we naturalized more citizens than in the entire last decade….

“The president has made no secret of the fact that he believes the American immigration system, first and foremost, is set up to work for America. That means economically and for the people here, and to do that, we put out invitations and offerings to people from around the world, along the lines that Congress puts in the law. 

“There is a lot of pressure in various sectors to utilize more immigrant labor for employment, whether it’s high tech or low tech – various parts of the economy....

“I would say that really the long-term solution for that isn’t on the horizon until the immigration reform that the president has talked about passes, and we restructure our immigration system to prioritize ... the employment side of immigration.”

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