The Ombuds Journey: The Culmination of 30 Years of Public Service

By Phyllis Coven,
Citizenship and Immigration Services Ombudsman
The Department of Homeland Security’s Office of the Citizenship and Immigration Services Ombudsman

My road to becoming an ombudsman was a long one and the more I learn about being an ombudsman, the more I see that it is really the culmination of my 30 years of public service working in the immigration arena.

My journey started when I worked as an attorney for the territory of American Samoa and later the California Department of Justice, where I was exposed to cases (both big and small) and how outcomes impact lives. I then was privileged to serve as a deputy associate attorney general for the U.S. Department of Justice, working as the liaison to the former U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS). My understanding of the complexities of operating the immigration system was deepened in my next job as director of international affairs at INS where I was responsible for asylum, refugee, and international office operations.

After U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) replaced INS, I worked overseas as the officer in charge of the Johannesburg, South Africa and Amman, Jordan offices and as the district director of the two largest USCIS field offices, located in New York and Los Angeles. Then I retired and thought I was done! But a wonderful opportunity came up to work and live overseas with the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), so I went back to work on global migration issues. 

When the Biden administration reached out to me about the Office of the Citizenship and Immigration Services Ombudsman (CIS Ombudsman) position, I discovered that the office deals with issues which have always been important elements in my work. I was inspired by how the work of the office really relies on feedback from those who use the immigration system every day—whether they are applicants, stakeholders, or even USCIS employees—and discerns how that feedback can make the system better for everyone involved.

The CIS Ombudsman’s Office was created as part of the Homeland Security Act of 2002. Despite our name, we are not a part of USCIS. We report to the deputy secretary of Homeland Security. This allows us to operate with independence, confidentiality, and impartiality.

Congress gave us a rather unique three-part mission. First, we serve as an office of last resort and our casework team helps customers resolve issues with USCIS. Creating a welcoming environment and providing good customer service was always a top priority when I managed large USCIS offices.

Second, we are charged with conducting stakeholder engagement in order to identify trends and problems with how USCIS is administering immigration benefits. Working with stakeholders has been a hallmark of my career, and I am a firm believer that users of a system often know the best way to fix it. With this in mind, my office engages with the full range of stakeholders – from immigration advocates to employers (large and small) – really everyone who has an investment in the immigration system.

Our casework and the information we gain from stakeholders informs our third function, which is to identify and issue recommendations to address systematic problems in the immigration system. This work culminates in the publication of our Annual Report to Congress each year. The process feels familiar, as I have worked in the past on various reform initiatives in the immigration, detention, and the resettlement context with the United Nations. 

There is no question that having experience working both inside and outside of USCIS gives me valuable perspectives that set me up for success in the role. I think I am the first CIS Ombudsman that has worked for USCIS, as have many of my key managers. This gives my team insight into the challenges that USCIS faces and a keen appreciation for what is involved in implementing change in an agency that touches on almost every aspect of life in this country. It is big ship to turn around. I also am cognizant of how our work impacts the people at USCIS and the wisdom of making recommendations that are easy for USCIS to say yes to. For this reason, I ask our office to rely on publicly available information where possible and to use our inside knowledge to craft recommendations that are concrete and actionable. 

For those who might be interested in ombudsman work, I would say it starts with cultivating good listening skills so that you are always learning. The more you learn and understand, the better your recommendations will be and the more sustainable the job will feel. It’s also helpful to have regular reminders of who you’re serving and why. For me at the CIS Ombudsman’s Office, it is a privilege to provide support to the agency that I have long worked with and the customers of the immigration system who contribute so much to our country. The way I see it, every step towards a more effective and efficient immigration benefits system is a step that ultimately helps us flourish as a nation. 


How to Submit

This post continues our Ombuds Journey Project series, representing the various pathways one may take in their journey as an ombuds. If you would like to share your journey, please email your narrative to [email protected]. We will be collecting stories throughout the month of June and we encourage both members and non-members to submit and share their experiences here on IOA's Blog. 

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