Homeland Insecurity

The Once and Future Shambles at the INS

The devastating change to the skyline two months later turned the administration's promises to rubble as well. In the new paradigm, immigration is a problem to be solved, suspicion the overriding principle. That seismic shift in outlook, far more than any structural change in how immigration services may be administered, will have the most far-reaching effects on the treatment of immigrants and visitors to the U.S. It already has.

Earlier this month, for example, the INS invoked a controversial post-9-11 regulation that allows the agency to keep individuals in detention even after an immigration judge has ordered their release. Meant to protect the U.S. against likely terrorists, it was used by the government on November 8 against some 200 Haitians seeking asylum, who traveled by boat and swam ashore in Florida in late October. According to Cheryl Little of the Florida Immigrant Advocacy Center, virtually all of the Haitians who have gone before a judge have been granted release on bond, but they have remained in INS custody. The government has said that it is detaining Haitians to deter more of them from attempting the dangerous journey. When advocates for the asylum seekers complained that Haitians were being treated unfairly, the U.S. pulled out the post-9-11 ruling to declare that all non-Cuban asylum seekers arriving by sea would be subject to mandatory detention.

Managing America's contradictory attitudes toward the immigrants who have fueled the country's growth has never been easy. Like the INS before it, the Department of Homeland Security will be hampered by immigration policy itself. The laws Congress makes are often contradictory and overreaching. The draconian legislation of 1996, for instance, intended to express how tough on crime the lawmakers could be, led to thousands of deportation cases involving permanent residents who had committed minor crimes years before and gone on to live law-abiding lives and raise American families; the '96 laws also overwhelmed the detention system, which was unprepared to handle the swelling numbers, and cases of abuse shot up. As this series has pointed out, the best intentions of the INS have often been stymied by an ill-informed Congress.

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.

Now, with all three branches of government in Republican hands, the liberal compassion for immigrant aspirations may dissolve from the discourse. But the intra- Republican battle between hard-line nativists who want the borders slammed shut and free-market capitalists who want to keep them open to cheap labor will no doubt produce ever more convoluted policy. Under such circumstances, the new bureaucratic behemoth doesn't have a prayer.

This is the last in a series investigating the INS.

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