Homeland Insecurity

The Once and Future Shambles at the INS

The dancing on the grave of the Immigration and Naturalization Service began last April, when the House of Representatives resolved to abolish the 110-year-old agency. Voting 405-9 to split the INS into two new bureaus—one dedicated to service, the other to enforcement—Congress members played a spirited game of blasting the federal government's "most dysfunctional agency." They kidded about alternative ways of reading the INS's acronym—"Incompetent and Negligent Service," "Ignoring National Security"—and Representative Bob Barr, Republican of Georgia, recommended that Congress "shred it, gather the shreds, burn them, gather the ashes, and distribute them through the four corners of the world."

There wasn't so much merriment in the vaunted old halls around the passage of the Homeland Security bill on November 19, if only because the rancorous partisan debate over some provisions of the law killed any spirit of jollity. But on paper, at least, the bill wipes out the INS once and for all, sweeping such functions as border patrol and deportation into the Department of Homeland Security's Bureau of Border Security, and moving "benefits" like the processing of naturalization and green cards into its Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services.

How, exactly, the 36,000 employees of the INS will be redeployed has not been entirely settled yet, and, as with the rest of Homeland Security—which will absorb 22 agencies and 170,000 workers—the reshuffling is expected to take at least a year or two, possibly more, so the INS as we know it is not going away for a good while. And even when the new managers take their place at the top of a new structure, there is little guarantee they will have any more success in solving the backlogs and bungles that have plagued the INS for so long.

At the U.S.-Mexico border: Border Patrol agents have been fleeing their jobs at an alarming rate.
photo: Michael Kamber
At the U.S.-Mexico border: Border Patrol agents have been fleeing their jobs at an alarming rate.

Quite the contrary, according to some critics. In his last and lonely stand against the Homeland Security bill, Senator Robert Byrd of West Virginia warned of a "bureaucratic behemoth" that has more to do with satisfying "inside Washington agendas" than improving security. Indeed, the DHS may reproduce the very problems that have made the INS so inefficient and unaccountable—but on a much, much grander scale. (Advocates for immigrants have only one unequivocally good thing to say about the new arrangement: It moves the responsibility for unaccompanied minors who enter the U.S. without documents out of the hands of INS enforcement and into the Office of Refugee Resettlement, within the Department of Health and Human Services.)

Based on the Bush administration's performance at the INS so far, Homeland Security seems doomed. Attorney General John Ashcroft, in whose Justice Department the INS currently resides, promised again and again to crack down on corruption and incompetence within the agency, beef up the border, and plug up the holes in security procedures. Congress handed over nearly $1 billion on top of a $5.5 billion budget that had been swelling since 1996. Since last March, when visa renewal approvals were mailed out to two of the 9-11 hijackers—six months after the attacks—Ashcroft seized control of the agency, subverting top management, and setting his own policies. And still, the place is a shambles—in worse shape than before 9-11. Morale is at an all-time low and uncertainty at an all-time high in the agency, according to several INS sources, none of whom would speak for attribution about the free fall they all agreed they'd been in for more than a year.

Immigrants themselves, of course, are bearing the brunt, as the Voice has documented through the year in this series. Despite President Bush's promises to cut processing times for routine procedures like visa renewals and green-card applications for relatives, waiting periods have in many instances gotten longer. Meanwhile, the U.S. has taken in less than 40 percent of the 70,000 refugees it promised to resettle this year. For immigrants who do make it in, the government imposes voluminous new tangles of red tape. More and more non-citizens are crammed into detention facilities, county jails, and private prisons, spurring the prison industry just when the criminal population is beginning a decline.

For all that, are Americans any safer? "Do the math," suggests T.J. Bonner, president of the National Border Patrol Council, the union representing the agents who are responsible for blocking illegal crossings into the country. INS inspectors and Border Patrol agents have been fleeing their jobs at an alarming rate. "It's still extremely easy to slip into the country," Bonner says.

After 9-11, Congress demanded the hiring of 1900 new border personnel but, says Bonner, "For every person we hire, another walks out the door." In the fiscal year ending this September 30, he says, the Border Patrol lost some 20 percent of its experienced workforce—nearly 2300 people. As for INS inspectors, who question foreign travelers as they enter the U.S., 540 bolted in the same period—a 50 percent increase in the usual attrition rate, according to INS recruitment chief Sid Waldstreicher. Noting that the INS has signed up nearly 8000 new people in 2002, Waldstreicher says, "We did have a record hiring year. The problem is we lost far more employees than we ever anticipated." The net gain to the force has only been in the dozens.

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