More than 300 graduates of Sidwell Friends School, the elite D.C. private academy where U.S. presidents have sent their children, signed a petition urging an alumnus in the Trump administration to reconsider controversial immigration policies.
The subject of the petition, L. Francis Cissna, is director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, a division of the Department of Homeland Security responsible for processing immigration and naturalization applications.
Cissna, a 1984 graduate of the Quaker school, was nominated by Trump in April 2017 to serve in the immigration post.
Graduates of Georgetown University’s law school, where Cissna received his law degree in 1995, delivered a similar petition Monday to the Department of Homeland Security.
Cissna and his office have been at the center of the Trump administration’s efforts to slash legal immigration — a plan that includes scrapping the long-standing family reunification model, which the president refers to as “chain migration.”
Cissna signed on to a letter with other top immigration officials three months ago urging Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen to detain and prosecute parents caught crossing the Mexican border illegally with their children, a controversial policy that has led to the separation of families. Cissna’s agency, however, is not responsible for detaining or prosecuting people who enter the country illegally.
Cissna made headlines in February when he removed the words “nation of immigrants” from Citizenship and Immigration Services’ mission statement. He has said he made the change not to diminish the role of immigrants but to more accurately describe the work of his division.
The letter from Sidwell graduates focuses on what the petition signers believe are the moral failings of the administration’s immigration policies. The letter from Georgetown graduates is similar, but also discusses what Cissna’s classmates believe are the legal failings of the policies.
Cissna’s office said it is aware of the petitions and will review them.
Citizenship and Immigration Services “will give any incoming letters from alumni of Director Cissna’s educational institutions due consideration, including any necessary corrections of the record for misunderstandings regarding [the division’s] statutory role in the administration of our nation’s immigration laws and ongoing initiatives to combat instances of fraud, abuse and other activities threatening the integrity of our nation’s immigration system,” Michael Bars, a spokesman for the agency, wrote in an email.
The letter from 303 Sidwell graduates prominently references the “Inner Light” — a Quaker teaching that says every human soul possesses an element of God or other holy spirit. The Sidwell letter is signed by decades of graduates, most of whom did not know Cissna in school.
“As a key leader and architect of the Trump Administration’s immigration policies, your actions, we believe, reflect the failure of persons other than you in the Administration — especially those who condemn refugees and immigrants as ‘animals’ who are ‘infesting’ America — to see in the faces of immigrants the Inner Light,” the letter reads.
Dan Manatt, a documentary filmmaker who drafted both petitions, attended Sidwell and Georgetown with Cissna. He said they were friends during their first year at Georgetown, when they took social-justice-focused legal courses together.
“The family separation zero-tolerance policy targeting refugee and immigrant families is needlessly traumatizing and inflicting severe psychological torture on migrant families,” Manatt said. “Francis knows better, he knows that many of these actions are unconstitutional under the equal protection clause, among others. I know this because I went to law school with him.”
The Georgetown letter, which is signed by more than 20 people who attended law classes with Cissna in the 1990s, said the government is wrongfully denying migrants who cross the border the right to apply to asylum.
The classmates said the policies that Cissna appears to promote do not align with the person they remember from law school.
“From our time as students, we recall you as a sensitive, compassionate person — a far cry from one of the leaders of our government’s policies towards immigrants that have aptly been described by respected faith leaders as ‘immoral,’ ‘cruel’ and even ‘evil,’ ” the letter reads.
Alexandra Tydings, a 1989 Sidwell alum who helped collect signatures for the letter, said Cissna is a powerful person in the Trump administration and she hopes he reconsiders how he wields influence in the government. She said it is “horrifying” and a “humanitarian crisis” that many immigrant children still haven’t been reunited with their parents, and she decided the petition was a small action she could take.
“We know that he knows better. I don’t understand how any human being can do this to another human being,” Tydings said. “He is deep in there, he has the ear of the president. I think he has some power here to do something.”