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Visa Backlog, Budget Issues Await Immigration Agency Nominee (1)

April 12, 2021, 7:08 PM; Updated: April 12, 2021, 8:36 PM

President Joe Biden‘s pick to lead U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services will have to hit the ground running at an agency that’s already faced several crises during the coronavirus pandemic.

Biden’s choice of Ur Jaddou to lead the Department of Homeland Security sub-agency responsible for administering legal immigration benefits was announced Monday and must be confirmed by the Senate. Jaddou brings substantial institutional experience that immigration advocates hope will alleviate challenges created by the agency’s expanding visa processing backlog and fiscal hardship.

“She is the most substantively prepared nominee in the history of the agency, and I happily include myself beneath her in terms of preparedness on substance,” said Leon Rodriguez, who served as the agency’s director during the Obama administration from 2014 to 2017. Jaddou served under Rodriguez as the USCIS chief counsel.

The daughter of immigrants from Mexico and Iraq, Jaddou is a California native, a graduate of Stanford University and of UCLA Law. Before her time at USCIS, she worked on immigration policy for Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.), who chairs the House Judiciary’s immigration subcommittee, and as deputy assistant secretary for Regional, Global and Functional Affairs in the State Department Bureau of Legislative Affairs, according to a biography provided by the White House.

“The role that she played as chief counsel when I was there means that she was involved in every substantive area in which the agency was engaged,” Rodriguez said. “That was boosted by her time on Capitol Hill, time at the State Department, her time practicing immigration law, her time teaching, and her time at America’s Voice,” a pro-immigration reform group.

Jaddou has also already garnered the support of the agency’s employee union. “The National Citizenship and Immigration Services Council staunchly supports Ur Jaddou’s nomination to the position of USCIS director,” said Danielle Spooner, president of the American Federation of Government Employees Local 119, which represents workers within the agency.

“Her knowledge and experience in immigration law will go far in healing the dysfunctional policies of the past few years and put in place policies that will secure the homeland while supporting a solid immigration program that benefits all involved,” Spooner said.

Jaddou, who led the Biden administration’s Homeland Security transition team, will next face Senate confirmation, which rests on Democrats’ razor thin majority.

Trump Watchdog

After serving under the Obama Administration, Jaddou transitioned to head of DHS Watch at America’s Voice. DHS Watch was created in 2018 “to uphold an immigration system that is competently administered, accountable, and adheres to long-held American values on immigration,” according to its website.

Jaddou tracked changes to the immigration system under the Trump administration, knowledge that will be valuable as the Biden administration works to counter some of those efforts.

Her top priority should be ensuring the immigration agency serves citizens, businesses and visa holders, Ali Noorani, president and CEO of the National Immigration Forum, told Bloomberg Law in an email. “USCIS is not, as Trump used it, an enforcement agency,” he said.

Noorani specifically cited the visa and naturalization backlogs. He also said the next USCIS leader must address agency processes “that have become unnecessarily cumbersome, are destabilizing millions of lives and undermining the nation’s economy.”

Rodriguez highlighted the budgetary crisis the agency faced last year, where it narrowly averted massive furloughs, as another top issue, in addition to new policies to “course correct” how the agency is handling asylum and refugee maters.

“That will be an item of immediate concern for both the agency and stakeholder communities,” he said of the asylum system.

A Path to Confirmation

Rodriguez predicted the confirmation process for Jaddou is likely to be contentious, but said her qualifications will “overcome whatever drama may befall” her nomination.

The last confirmed director of USCIS was Lee Francis Cissna, a Trump nominee, who was approved by a vote of 54-43 in 2017 and served until 2019. Subsequent heads of the agency during the Trump administration served in an acting capacity.

Opponents of Biden immigration policies have already criticized Jaddou’s immigration advocacy work.

“Ur Jaddou is an open-borders amnesty architect who will undoubtedly try to bend, or outright ignore, countless rules and laws expressly designed to exclude people who do not qualify for immigration benefits,” said RJ Hauman, government relations director at the Federation for American Immigration Reform.

A spokesman for Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, told Bloomberg Law in an email that he “evaluates nominees on their merits,” but didn’t comment further.

A representative for Senate Judiciary Chairman Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

(Updated with comments from USCIS union head in sixth and seventh paragraphs.)

To contact the reporter on this story: Genevieve Douglas in Washington at gdouglas@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Martha Mueller Neff at mmuellerneff@bloomberglaw.com; Travis Tritten at ttritten@bgov.com; Andrew Harris at aharris@bloomberglaw.com

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