Part 11: INS, the troubled guardian : LUSENET : Grassroots Information Coordination Center (GICC) : One Thread

Part 11: INS, the troubled guardian Tuesday, 4 September 2001 10:43 (ET)

Part 11: INS, the troubled guardian By NICHOLAS M. HORROCK, UPI Senior White House Correspondent

(Part 11 of UPI's 14-part series on U.S. immigration)

WASHINGTON (UPI) -- Shortly after President Bush said he would issue plans to reform the handling of illegal aliens in September, the two ranking Republicans on the House Judiciary Committee announced they would pass no immigration reform legislation until the administration sent them Immigration and Naturalization Service reform.

The incident disclosed not only the deep fissures in the Republican Party over immigration, but provides an example of the kind contradictions that have plagued the INS throughout its history.

Americans are ambivalent about immigration. On the one hand, most Americans agree that like any sovereign nation, U.S. residents have the right to let in whom they choose.

On the other hand, most Americans believe that this is a nation of immigrants, a land of open borders and open arms. It is a country where citizenship is conferred not on one ethnic group or religion, but on people willing to accept certain values as expressed in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.

For many Americans, Emma Lazarus's words emblazoned on the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor are not simply 19th century sentimentality:

"Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free. The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, the tempest-tost to me. I lift my lamp beside the Golden Door."

As the nation has vacillated since the first federal immigration laws in 1875, so has Congress, producing over the years a group of immigration laws that, as Mark Krikorian of the Center for Immigration Studies argues, "rival the United States Tax Code for complexity."

The CIS is a non-partisan Washington research group that advocates "fewer immigrants but a warmer welcome for those admitted."

"The macro problem for INS," Krikorian says, "is that the INS is being asked to carry out crazy policies."

First of all, current immigration to the United States is incredibly large -- Krikorian would say "too large."

The INS processes some 600,000 to 700,000 legal immigrants a year, and another 300,000 people or so enter the population illegally. The total immigration for the past decade, by some estimates 10.5 million people, exceeds the highest previous level in the nation's history, 1901 to 1910, when 8.8 million legal immigrants were accepted.

About half of the illegal aliens who enter the country do so surreptitiously, and the INS doesn't know they're here. The other half are aliens who entered the United States legally, but have overstayed their visa or work permit. They can overstay with impunity because the INS has no real records of who leaves the country or when.

There is a myriad of permits and visas to enter the country. Some people come, for instance, under a work program, "H2B," a pilot program of a guest worker-type not unlike the ideas that Bush is examining. Others people come on sort of day-trip passes that allow Mexicans to regularly cross the southern border to a limit of 25 miles, or specialized work permits that let people with exceptional skills work here.

There are student visas and general work permits, permanent resident applications and tourist visas, political asylum applications and special medical admissions. When Lazarus wrote her famous words, there were perhaps a dozen major ports on each coast through which immigrants flowed and a north-and-south border with little day-to-day traffic. Now with air travel, there are internal ports of entry at scores of airports where foreign flights make first landing, and teeming land arrivals both south and north.

"To understand INS," says former INS Commissioner Doris Meissner, "you have to start with the responsibilities, and those responsibilities had to be carried out in a time of historically high immigration."

She contends that it is not just the past decade that has affected America and the INS, but 30 years of accelerating immigration that followed the 1965 immigration law reforms.

In the early 1990s, there was a major backlash against the rising tide of undocumented aliens. In California, Gov. Pete Wilson won passage for Proposition 187, which barred illegal immigrants from social services and welfare.

This mood of restriction was felt in Congress, and the 1996 immigration laws were a tangle of new regulations for the INS to enforce that dealt with issues of welfare and identification.

But at the same time that the backlash was occurring on illegal immigration, thousands employers across the country were complaining about the way INS was enforcing sanctions against employers who hired the illegal immigrants.

Most critics of immigration laws, either from the perspective they are too harsh or too liberal, agree that illegal immigration is nurtured by two factors: employment opportunities and the desire to join family members already in the United States.

Opponents of the immigration policy in the past decade say that unless the employment opportunities for the illegal alien are removed, there is no hope of stemming the tide, particularly the tide coming over the Mexican border.

In 1996, the INS was enforcing sanctions against employers who hire aliens, sanctions embodied in a 1986 law passed under President Reagan. Congress passed the sanctions in 1986 as part of a reform and amnesty program that gave amnesty to some 3.2 million illegal aliens, but set penalties for employers who continued to give illegal immigrants jobs.

In those days, INS investigators arrested and deported illegal aliens where they found them. They "raided" businesses that had a record of hiring illegal aliens and prosecuted employers who knowingly hired them. But while some in Congress wanted to limit illegal immigration, others were pressing the INS to halt its pressure on business.

An example was the fate of a pilot program on the meatpacking industry in Nebraska. Meat packers are major employers of immigrant labor, hiring Asians, Latinos and others in large numbers. The INS obtained from the Nebraska meatpacking firms records of their employees and searched them for Social Security numbers.

In several plants, they identified large numbers of employees whose documents seemed out of order. They didn't raid the plants. They invited the employees to meet with INS and straighten out their documents. Three quarters of the employees INS contacted fled. The fourth quarter were legal aliens who had some technical problem in their papers.

The business community of Nebraska was outraged. The governor and the congressional delegation complained so vigorously INS abandoned the test program.

By 1998, under pressure from Congress and with vast funds provided by Congress, INS shifted its emphasis to border enforcement, spending some $2 billion dollars a year to fortify the Mexican border and reduce the illegal entries.

At the same time, however, INS sharply reduced interior enforcement of immigration laws.

"It's like the old playground game. If you're in the country, you're home free all," said one congressional aide.

The same push and pull on the agency has arisen over handling of applications for asylum. Though the agency has been pressed to ascertain whether they are in reality efforts to fraudulently enter the United States, it has been severely criticized for holding asylum seekers in long detentions and denying them due process.

Krikorian says that, even with these contradictions, if INS were a more efficient agency, it might be able to handle its mission. But he and Meissner and others agree that, as Meissner put it, "INS has been a stepchild of the government for most of its existence."

Though it is a Department of Justice agency, it has never had the attention afforded to the FBI or even the U.S. Marshal's service, though it is larger than the FBI by several thousand employees. Including the Border Patrol, the INS's uniformed border force, the agency has 33,000 employees and an annual budget of nearly $5 billion.

But inattention by Congress and several administrations has left it a bureaucratic nightmare. For instance, Meissner said, the INS leadership in the 1960s and 1970s decided not to invest in computer technology in order to protect the thousands of jobs of people hand-processing its millions of immigration documents. No administration or attorney general questioned this decision. It was a fatal error.

The result is that INS is just now getting effective computer operations under way. The quick retrieval of information is vital not only to the smooth process of immigrants, but also to national security. The INS is the first line of defense against terrorists, criminals and foreign agents entering the country.

But when a known Algerian terrorist was snagged in at the Canadian border two years ago, "it was just good luck," said one congressional source.

The need to secure the borders, Meissner said, can work at cross-purposes with the orderly admission and naturalization of citizens.

"If the examiner does a good diligent job on examining the applicant for admission, it delays the process and an enormous backlog is created," she said.

One congressional aide, who asked not to be quoted by name, said that by her reckoning the INS has a backlog of 4.5 million applications of different types from citizenship to permanent residence renewals.

It is this administrative breakdown that has resounded in Congress and led House Judiciary Committee leaders James Sensenbrenner, R-Ohio, and George W. Gekas, R- Pa., to issue their ultimatum about holding immigration legislation hostage to INS reform.

Aides to the congressmen said the legislators have received more constituent complaints about the INS than on any other subject. Congress members and senators from states nowhere near a national border said the complaints about INS backlog are enormous.

None of INS's problems are new. It has been "reformed" numerous times in the past three decades, and Meissner calls the cries for INS reform a sort of "mantra" on Capitol Hill. "In the 1990s there was a lot of reform and a lot of progress," she said.

But the former commissioner is worried that Congress "will put the cart before the horse," mandating INS organization reform before broad reforms of the immigration policies. She thinks that the policies should be developed with "INS at the table" and then effect organizational reform to fit the needs of those policies.

There are numerous bills to both reform immigration and to reform the INS alone.

INS reform ideas, particularly the ones that are likely to be considered in Congress in the next several months, concentrate on the structure of the agency.

Some studies in the past decade have called for abolishing the INS and spreading its responsibilities among other agencies. These plans, for instance, would give visa applications and naturalization procedures to the State Department, illegal labor practices to the Labor Department, and create some kind of border police under the Department of Justice. Attorney General John Ashcroft is sharply opposed to these ideas.

The more politically likely reorganization would be some division of the border and enforcement functions from the naturalization processing within the Justice Department: Either create two separate agencies with associate attorneys general or create two separate services with commissioners who report to the attorney general.

Immigrant groups and others sharply oppose a plan that would have two separate agencies funded separately by Congress, fearing that the agency that processes naturalization and provide services to immigrants will not receive as much congressional support as the enforcement agency.

-- Copyright 2001 by United Press International.

-- Martin Thompson (, September 09, 2001

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