War at the Door

INS Crackdowns and Bureaucracy Threaten America’s Tradition as a Nation of Immigrants

The INS has emphasized the enforcement side of its program at least since the 1950s, according to historian and University of California law professor Bill Ong Hing, pouring as much as three-quarters of its resources into such activities as border patrol, airport inspections, smuggling investigations, and detaining and deporting those lacking legal status. The INS has more armed agents than any other federal agency, including the Bureau of Prisons and the FBI. (And according to an Office of the Inspector General report last year, it couldn't find 539 of its weapons. At least six turned up after being used in crimes. Nor could the INS account for up to 81,000 other items—among them vehicles, computers, and aircraft, valued at between $68.9 million and $107.6 million.)

In its 110-year history, the INS has been bounced around government departments like an unruly foster child. It resided in the Treasury Department until 1903, when it was transferred to Labor. In 1940, with growing wartime concern about immigration as a national threat—and Labor Secretary Frances Perkins uninterested in turning the Labor Department into a security agency—it was moved to the Justice Department (doubling in size from 4000 to 8000 employees), where it has resided since, directly under the charge of the attorney general.

Today, more than 35,000 people work for the INS in a Byzantine structure of regional districts and Border Patrol sectors, presided over by directors in what some critics call alarmingly autonomous "fiefdoms." Indeed, the Inspector General report cited "a significant disconnect between what INS Headquarters believes is occurring in the field and what actually happens." California Congress member Zoe Lofgren says she's expressing bipartisan accord when she calls it "the worst performing agency in the government." Such incompetence has consistently been rewarded with mushrooming subsidies: The INS budget increased by 220 percent between 1993 and 2001.

September 11 brought many of the bungles and brutalities to the fore: on one hand, sieve-like screening processes that let visa applicants on terrorist-watch lists get through; on the other, a vast and arbitrary detention system that can "disappear" people who have committed no crime. But the agency has not been called to answer heightened demands for accountability. On the contrary, it has acquired more authority and more money as it has rushed to reinforce the border and to hunt down and detain visa scofflaws of Arab and Muslim descent. In his budget proposal early this month, President Bush requested a 14.5 percent increase, raising the INS allotment from $5.5 billion to $6.3 billion—almost all of it earmarked for enforcement measures.


Security needs notwithstanding, THE fortress fervor has not only led to abuses of civil rights, but also compounded the already catastrophic overload on the service side of the INS. As House Republican Darrell Issa has said, "The legal immigrant gets screwed by the failure of this organization." Between 1994 and 2000 the number of applications for green cards, citizenship, and other benefits increased nearly 50 percent to more than 6 million, overwhelming the agency. Already buckling under the weight of a backlog of 4 million applications, INS staff have clocked 70,000 hours of overtime for each pay period since September 11.

Lines wind around the block at offices where a naturalized citizen applies for a visa for his mother back in, say, Karachi, or an undergraduate requests an extension to finish a course of study, or a green-card holder files a change of name after getting married, or a longtime resident signs up for citizenship. They can wait six hours to turn in the paperwork—and then for months, even years, for the result. By the government's own calculation, it can take almost four years for citizens to sponsor the immigration of a relative. And more likely than not, the clerks and officials they encounter will be rude, suspicious that even the most routine applicants have cheated their way into the country.

Those fleeing persecution and requesting asylum here may be hurt most by this miasma of mistrust. Thousands end up in detention—even in high-security prisons—while their claims crawl through the INS's overburdened courts. T.J. Mills, who served as an asylum officer from 1993 to 2000 (and now works as an attorney assisting immigrants), says he joined the INS to help those who sought refuge in America, but found that the climate was so hostile to applicants that he couldn't take it. "Most of the supervisors were convinced that 90 percent of asylum seekers were lying," he recalls. "It was absolutely an enforcement mentality. And now, since September 11, it's gotten worse."


Commissioner Ziglar, who stepped into the job just weeks before 9-11, recently announced plans to overcome the INS's existential crisis by splitting it into two distinct departments: service and enforcement. Such a division has been recommended for decades, and in addition to Ziglar's administrative scheme, various Congress members have produced legislative proposals for restructuring the agency. Though the plans differ in significant detail, Washington is enjoying what Migration Policy Institute codirector Demetrios Papademetriou calls the "New Immigration Consensus." But the overhaul won't be complete until the end of 2003—and there's no guarantee that the new arrangement won't starve the service side of funds, or that it can repair the management malfunctions.

The parallel justice system needs a similar shake-up if the reforms are going to be meaningful, according to the very judges who hear its cases. Immigration matters do not go through the country's criminal or civil system, but through special courts within the Justice Department, so the attorney general is boss to both prosecutor and judge. He has the authority to override judges' discretion and even to reverse decisions. That, says Susan Martin, director of the Institute for the Study of International Migration, is like the police commissioner being able to overturn a verdict he doesn't like in a criminal case.

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