Homeland Insecurity

The Once and Future Shambles at the INS

The mass exodus results from a combination of factors, Bonner explains. One, of course, is money. About a third of the departing Border Patrol agents took jobs created after 9-11 as air marshals, where they stood to make a salary leap of as much as $10,000 from a starting pay of about $35,000 a year in the Border Patrol. Congress responded in August by authorizing the upgrading of some INS jobs, enabling workers to rise to much higher salary levels as they accrue time on the job.

But that doesn't address worker uncertainty and unhappiness, Bonner says, warning that the likelihood that workers in the new Homeland Security agency will lose their union protections is driving people away. "It's our guys who spoke up about the need for more personnel on the Canadian border even when the INS was saying they were doing fine," he says. "Congress listened and authorized the tripling of positions there. But nobody is going to speak up without union protections." What's worse, he adds, agents who witness wrongdoing or corruption will keep their mouths shut once whistle-blower provisions are weakened in the new department.

Chuck Murphy, who retired in June from his position as president of the National Immigration and Naturalization Service Council—the union of INS workers—goes so far as to suggest that the loss of protections is not about improving security, but a cynical move to bust federal unions altogether. "It's our worst nightmare," he says, adding, "I'm just lucky to have gotten out when I did."

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.

Spirits are not much higher in the white-collar precincts of the INS. Though Waldstreicher could not provide any numbers, insiders say anecdotally that attrition in this sector is accelerating, too. Certainly the discontent has risen to the top: No less than INS commissioner James Ziglar announced his resignation in mid August, and will be leaving his soon-to-be abolished post at the end of the year.

Though Ziglar is not speaking publicly about his decision, by all accounts he became frustrated by the increasing irrelevance with which he was regarded by Ashcroft and his cronies after 9-11. "Just looking at how things have operated, you can see how difficult Ashcroft made it for a pro-immigrant Republican to have a role in his Department of Justice," says Angela Kelley, the deputy director of the National Immigration Forum, referring to Ziglar.

A notorious example of Ashcroft's power grab was the demand that foreigners living in the U.S. report any change of address to the INS within 10 days of moving. On July 26, Ashcroft resuscitated the 50-year-old law, and non-citizens responded. INS offices were flooded with 700,000 change-of-address cards—which have been gathering dust ever since.

Any INS official could have told Ashcroft that the agency did not have the capacity to process such data when he demanded it be collected, but Ashcroft wasn't asking INS officials. He's been relying, instead, on two young protégés with little experience in immigration policy: One is Kris Kobach, a 36-year-old conservative law professor from Missouri, who is a White House Fellow on temporary loan to the Justice Department this year—on a kind of upscale internship. That didn't stop Ashcroft from giving Kobach a leading role developing initiatives targeting immigrants, most controversially the proposal last spring that local and state police departments should track down illegal immigrants. (Even the White House objected to the plan.) The other is Assistant Attorney General Viet Dinh, 34, a refugee from Vietnam in charge of overseeing the Office of Legal Policy. The mastermind of the USA Patriot Act, Dinh is widely regarded as the force behind such measures as increasing Internet surveillance and eavesdropping on attorney-client conversations. Dinh asserted that anyone suspected of terrorism would be arrested if they "so much as spit on the sidewalk." He's largely credited with the administration's chilled attitude toward immigrants.

That attitude is surprising given Dinh's own dramatic story. In 1978, at age 10, he escaped from Vietnam with his mother, four siblings, and 85 others on a rickety 49-foot boat. After 12 days at sea, they reached Malaysia, where they waited in a refugee camp until permitted to come to America. In the U.S., Dinh helped support the family by picking berries and scrubbing floors, went to Harvard College, stayed on for law school, then clerked for Justice O'Connor in the Supreme Court. The administration touts him as—in Ashcroft's words—"a living, breathing example of the transforming power of freedom."

Dinh came along with Ashcroft and President Bush to a special swearing-in ceremony for new citizens held on Ellis Island in July 2001—back when visitors to that island could still see the World Trade towers hovering on the skyline. Ashcroft welcomed them to the "center of immigrant experience in America, to celebrate America's longstanding and continuing embrace of new Americans from all parts of the world." Dinh administered the oath of citizenship. Bush addressed his new "fellow Americans," and made his own vows: assuring that the INS would "treat every immigrant with respect and fairness," and asserting that "Immigration is not a problem to be solved. It is the sign of a confident and successful nation. . . . New arrivals should be greeted not with suspicion and resentment but with openness and courtesy."

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