passport_eagleUSCIS recently announced that it will be providing special assistance to “customers” affected by Hurricane Matthew.  Such an action is commendable. The U.S. has a long tradition of aiding those who have survived natural disasters. But why is USCIS referring to the foreign applicants it is charged with vetting as customers?

Government executives have begun applying private sector management techniques in order to improve the performance of their organizations. Private companies sell a product or service to a clearly defined group of purchasers – their customers. The primary aim is to provide good “customer service” in order to keep customers coming back. Therefore it has become trendy to view those who interact with executive agencies as customers.

Does that model work for a government agency? Not really. Being a customer implies that one has entered into an association with a vendor in order to conduct a quid pro quo transaction. If you pay an online bookseller $20 for a book, it becomes obligated to send you the requested volume or refund your money. Generally speaking, retail businesses don’t vet their customers or refuse to sell to them if they don’t meet certain criteria. The only requirement that most vendors impose is that the customer exchange cash for goods or services.

But USCIS isn’t selling anything. It is an agency of the federal government responsible for enforcing administrative law. Foreign nationals seeking permission to enter or remain in the U.S. pay a fee to cover the administrative costs of processing their applications. They are entitled to be treated with dignity and respect. But USCIS is never obligated to deliver an approval simply because the applicant paid. The key issue is whether an applicant qualifies under the law, not the exchange of funds.

The notion that USCIS serves foreign customers is the primary driver behind its assembly line mentality and reckless efforts to approve as many immigration applications as quickly as possible. Lawful immigration status is not for sale.

But USCIS should be serving Americans. Its primary function is to protect Americans by enforcing the immigration laws of the United States. If it insists on using strained business metaphors, USCIS should make it clear that its true customer is the American public.