2001Public Service

Reformers see no quick or easy fix for troubled I.N.S.

Critics say the agency's failings hinge on its conflicted mission of serving people at the borders vs. enforcing laws against them
Richard Read
Oregonian Staff
December 15, 2000

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Reformers examined the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service in 1940, seven years after the agency was created, and suggested a merger that seemed sensible.

Let's combine INS and Customs inspectors, they said, eliminating parallel bureaucracies at U.S. ports of entry. But 60 years and more than 30 studies, commissions and reorganizations later, nothing of the sort has happened.

The INS remains in the Justice Department, where President Franklin D. Roosevelt moved it from the Labor Department in 1940, citing wartime security concerns. Critics blame many of the agency's spectacular failings on the resulting law-enforcement mentality that pervades even INS services such as naturalization, asylum decisions and refugee applications.

"Just about anyone who has studied the immigration system over the last 20 years has concluded that there needs to be a separation of the enforcement and service responsibilities," says Robert Hill, a Washington, D.C., immigration lawyer.

Xuan Li Zheng

Xuan Li "Faith" Zheng, 22, an asylum seeker, recalls being held two years and two months in Oregon jails after trying to enter the United States illegally. (Roger Jensen/The Oregonian)

Jan Mullaney and Xuan Li  Zheng

Jan Mullaney (left) laughs over letters she and Xuan Li "Faith" Zheng exchanged during Zheng's time in jail. (Roger Jensen and Michael Lloyd/The Oregonian)

Hill served on the bipartisan U.S. Commission on Immigration Reform, which in 1997 recommended moving key INS services to the State Department. Political momentum for reform has since dwindled. But Hill and others think the incoming Bush administration will be freer to act than Democrats tied to recent INS leadership.

Any restructuring of the agency must occur against the backdrop of immigration policy, a divisive issue that continues to trouble lawmakers. Politicians tread gingerly as the country balances its tradition of welcoming newcomers with fears of immigration's effects on jobs, schools and the environment.

Democrats and Republicans express interest in reforms to:

  • Remove or redefine the jobs of INS district directors, the 36 managers who exercise far-reaching authority and autonomy. In Portland, former District Director David Beebe retired under pressure Oct. 3 after outrage over heavy-handed enforcement.

  • Scrap the retroactive provision of the 1996 law that allows the INS to deport immigrants because of minor crimes committed years ago. U.S. Reps. Bill McCollum, R-Fla., and Lamar Smith, R-Texas, former supporters, now favor eliminating the measure.

  • Restore judicial review over INS officers empowered by the 1996 law to reject foreigners and to ban them from the United States for as long as 10 years.

  • Improve officers' training, pay and working conditions.

  • Cut backlogs of applications for citizenship and other benefits.

People who wait hours in lines and suffer rudeness or mistreatment say they would be pleased if the agency merely became more accessible. Installing phone and fax lines or enabling electronic application filing would not require acts of Congress.

Some reformers want the service side of the INS to operate more like a business, along the lines of the U.S. Postal Service.

Even the INS favors a sharper line between service and enforcement -- albeit within the existing agency -- under a plan remaining from the Clinton administration.

But reformers disagree whether to cut the agency in two, to keep it intact with dual divisions or to farm out some responsibilities.

The reform commission wanted new divisions of the Justice Department to retain immigration enforcement, the State Department to process immigration-related applications and the Labor Department to enforce immigrant employment standards. It wanted to create an independent agency to review immigration appeals.

Luis Jimenez

Luis Jimenez, 29, displays scars from stabbing himself with a plastic spoon while depressed in INS custody. He was ordered released in October. (Roger Jensen and Michael Lloyd/The Oregonian)

But that approach would be destructive to the INS, says Demetrios Papademetriou, co-director of the international migration policy program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

"You would create a complete catastrophe, a black hole," Papademetriou says. He co-wrote a 1997 report that advocated a new Cabinet-level agency combining immigration-related functions of the INS, State and Labor departments, while separating service and enforcement.

Mark Hetfield, a Refugee Council USA adviser, says reformers should not divide the agency in anger. "Simply splitting the INS in two would only replace one troublesome bureaucracy with two troublesome and warring bureaucracies," Hetfield says.

Shirley Hufstedler, a former U.S. education secretary who chaired the reform commission, says reform may be easier because extreme resentment toward immigration has decreased because of economic growth.

But Hufstedler doesn't expect quick action, paraphrasing former New Jersey Supreme Court Justice Arthur T. Vanderbilt: "Restructuring governments is not for the short-winded."

Public Service 2001