Public Affairs Officer Tim
Job Title: Public Affairs Officer
Location: St. Paul Field Office, Minnesota
USCIS Public Affairs Officers across the country are the agency’s primary representatives to the news media. They answer questions from reporters, often handling inquiries about highly controversial subjects while navigating privacy concerns, political sensitivities and complex legal issues. Public Affairs Officers often work with USCIS leadership, front-line employees and immigrants themselves to come up with event, human interest or feature story ideas that are attention-grabbing and inspiring. They then pitch these stories to reporters.
When have you most felt like you were making a contribution to the community?
One of the most satisfying aspects of my job is to help educate reporters (and by extension the public) about current immigration law and policy, so that debate on the topic is informed and constructive. Immigration is one of the most controversial issues in the United States – opinions are often strong; emotions flare. Immigration law is also highly complex. More complex than federal tax law, many say. Accurate information is also profoundly important to those directly affected by immigration law and policy. People need to know what immigration benefits they may qualify for, and how to avoid scammers who try to take advantage of confusion and misinformation.
How did you get involved in the USCIS media team?
I earned a bachelor’s degree in communications. After college I worked in a variety of jobs, including as an actor in a theater company and in customer service in a hotel, until a friend who worked for the Social Security Administration gave me a tip about new government jobs that were created as a result of the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986. I applied for a term (temporary) position under the legalization portion of the law, which eventually resulted in legal status for millions of people who were living here without permission. The position I held was limited to two years. During that time, the agency – which was then the Immigration and Naturalization Service -- was setting up public affairs offices, as media interest in the new law was intense. My degree and past work experience in various public-facing jobs helped me secure a permanent position as an agency media spokesman.
Life is a mixture of the expected and the unexpected. How does that apply to your experience at USCIS?
During my 26 years of government employment, I’ve worked for three federal immigration agencies. One would think that by now I had heard it all and seen it all, and that no reporter’s question would surprise me. Not true. I’m amazed at how often I’m asked about a section of law that I’ve not heard of, or asked to comment on a new wrinkle in a standard immigration case. While this certainty can be stressful, it also keeps the job fresh and engaging. Throughout my career I have had the privilege of working with a large and talented group of people, both within the public affairs team and throughout the agency as a whole. Federal immigration law is a challenging and fascinating realm, and it draws intelligent, dedicated employees who enjoy stimulating public service work.
Tell us about a project in a part of the world that few people ever get to see.
Many years ago I was sent to Guam to act as a spokesman for the Immigration and Naturalization Service. The situation was this: Chinese-organized crime smugglers – “snakeheads” – were sending barely seaworthy ships crammed with Chinese citizens to the tiny island, where they would ask for asylum. I’ll never forget the poignant sight of hundreds of dazed migrants emerging from a rusted fishing vessel.
As a U.S. territory, anyone reaching Guam’s shores is given full access to the U.S. asylum process. The smugglers counted on their “customers” (each of whom had paid tens of thousands of dollars for the journey) being quickly transferred to the U.S. mainland, as there were no detention facilities or immigration courts on Guam. Once in the United States, many simply disappeared into society.
To address the situation, the U.S. Coast Guard sent patrol ships to Guam to intercept the smuggling ships; a temporary detention facility was constructed on a nearby island; and asylum officers and immigration judges were flown to Guam to handle the cases on-site. Those who did not qualify for asylum – the majority of those smuggled – were repatriated to China from Guam. The experience was a fascinating, up-close look at the multifaceted immigration puzzle.