War at the Door

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

Hoping to capitalize on restructuring fever, the union representing the country's 220 immigration judges is calling for a complete split from the Justice Department. Meanwhile, Ashcroft recently announced plans that would curtail immigrants' rights even further, by limiting the scope of appeals they are allowed. With that, he would reduce the number of judges on the Board of Immigration Appeals—a step that may be used to pick off particular judges Ashcroft regards as too liberal.

Then there's congress. No matter how well-structured the INS might become, it can't help but falter as long as it has to enforce extreme and often contradictory laws.

There's no better example than the huge increase in mandatory detentions called for in the 1996 package of draconian immigration reforms passed by the Gingrich Congress in the era of California's anti-immigrant Proposition 187. Like the Rockefeller drug laws in New York, these new rules boosted the swelling incarceration industry. With little preparation and less capacity, the INS quickly became the jailer of the country's most rapidly expanding prison population. Last year it detained more than 180,000 people, three times the number a decade ago. Little surprise that allegations of abuse abound.

Too bad lawmakers often don't understand how the principle they want to assert in legislation will affect actual people. Many Congress members have expressed amazement and horror when learning of cases like that of an elderly Cleveland woman who suddenly found herself in deportation proceedings (which were abandoned after public pressure) because of a couple of shoplifting convictions in the early 1960s; they simply hadn't reckoned the real-life implications of the 1996 tough-on-crime directives that "criminal aliens" be deported without judicial review.

Before September, momentum was building for "Fix '96," as the lobbying effort to roll back some of the excesses of the six-year-old legislation was called. That endeavor might not be dead now, but, says Susan Martin, "it's certainly in a coma."

Ashcroft is making the most of the moment. But like his shrinking the Board of Immigration Appeals, most of his streamlining proposals really work, says Papademetriou, "to accomplish some things that the conservative wing of the Republican Party has wanted to accomplish all along: to have as truncated a process to deport people as possible. It's returning to the spirit of the 1996 legislation."

But most of the country does not seem to share a renewed spirit for the restrictions of the mid '90s. Despite post-9-11 fears, and a generally supine acceptance of civil liberties restrictions in the name of fighting terrorism, an expected public backlash against immigrants has not been widely inflamed—despite efforts to ignite one by organizations like the Federation for American Immigration Reform, which issued a press release on September 12 blaming "open-border advocates" for the terrorist attacks. Rather, argued Frank Sharry of the National Immigration Forum at the group's annual conference earlier this month, there's a growing public understanding of immigrants' contributions to the cultures and economies of America, and thus less fertile ground for nativist initiatives. A Proposition 187 wouldn't have a prayer today. Indeed, the Senate two weeks ago voted to restore food stamps to legal immigrants who have been in the country five years.

When the Ellis Island ferry turns back toward the city, it heads straight into the harbor, providing a full frontal view of the wounded Manhattan skyline. The people packing the deck look up silently for a moment, then go back to snapping photos and chatting away in Mandarin, Spanish, Norwegian, and Czech. Asked where they come from, the tourists proudly reply: California, Nebraska, Tennessee, and Maine.

This is the first of an ongoing series of articles investigating the INS.


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