Deporting The INS

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HOT SEAT: INS boss Ziglar with Attorney General John Ashcroft

The papers from the Immigration and Naturalization Service arrived in the morning mail at Huffman Aviation International like notices for long-overdue library books. The forms in the envelope that Huffman president Rudi Dekkers opened Monday, March 11, announced that Mohamed Atta and Marwan Al-Shehhi were cleared for takeoff, their M-1 student visas approved for flying lessons--six months to the day after the two terrorists steered hijacked jetliners into oblivion and mass carnage at the World Trade Center towers.

In the bizarre bureaucracy of the INS, the system had functioned precisely as it was designed to, which is why the INS is about to be torn apart. An angry President Bush ordered an investigation when he read about the incident. Furious members of Congress are pushing legislation to gut the INS, a bureaucracy that never had many friends in Washington and is now totally alienated. "We've all been dumbfounded by these revelations," fumed Congressman James Sensenbrenner Jr., who chairs the House Judiciary Committee. "This fiasco is indicative of the enormous mismanagement of the INS."

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Sensenbrenner and Pennsylvania's George Gekas want to dismantle the INS and place its functions in two separate agencies overseen by the Justice Department. One would handle immigration services, and the other would be in charge of law enforcement. Another bill, which passed the House last week, would add 1,000 agents to track down unwanted aliens; close the vast loopholes in the student-visa program; allocate $150 million for border-policing technology, including biometrics that could electronically identify fingerprints; and mandate a shared-information platform with the Justice and State departments to keep potential terrorists from falling through the cracks. Even today, for instance, the INS and FBI fingerprint systems can't cross-reference. The same bill has been proposed in the Senate, but it is snarled in a procedural squabble that could delay a vote for another month. INS Commissioner James W. Ziglar tried to quell the revolt in part by joining it. Calling the visa fiasco "unacceptable," he announced a major shake-up, reassigning four senior officials. He too favors separating the agency's enforcement unit from its immigration side. But that might not be enough to placate Sensenbrenner, who wants Ziglar's scalp.

If the INS exhibits outsize incompetence, perhaps it is in proportion to its mission. More than 250 million citizens and noncitizens enter and exit the U.S. each year, many crossing the border repeatedly, and the agency is supposed to keep tabs on all nonresidents. Most foreigners go home when they're supposed to, but as many as 8 million are in the U.S. illegally.

As the hijackers knew so well, once foreigners are inside the U.S., the chances of the INS's finding them are slim. The agency's data collection is unreliable, and its computer systems are outmoded. Three of the 19 terrorists behind Sept. 11 had overstayed their visas, and they weren't alone. Right now, more than 3 million foreigners are living in the U.S. on expired visas. The INS has fewer than 2,000 agents to locate them. And those same agents have plenty of other duties--finding noncitizen criminals, investigating employers who exploit illegals, helping fight the drug war--that stretch manpower beyond the limit. "The INS does not do a good job of deporting people who should be deported," says Sensenbrenner, pointing to agency assertions that it could not account for 314,000 people ordered deported. On the inbound side, he says, there is a backlog of 5 million cases, many of them applications for legal residency.

The INS has always had a conflicted agenda, to guard the borders and at the same time to welcome immigrants. Now congressional detractors say the agency can't do anything right. "As currently structured, the INS has proved itself to be an agency utterly incapable of carrying out the diverse missions," says Georgia Congressman Bob Barr, a conservative Republican. "We are essentially asking it to do an impossible task."

Yet the system has resisted reform in part because businesses, universities, law-enforcement agencies and Congress itself have thrown up roadblocks. Industries such as meat-packing, manufacturing, tourism and restaurants, which rely heavily on foreign-born workers, have effectively lobbied Congress to keep the INS at bay. There are political and ethnic sensibilities too, since many illegals are Hispanics seeking a better life. INS personnel have been reluctant to bust house painters and hotel maids for working hard, and the Justice Department, which oversees the agency, wants the cooperation of immigrant communities in pursuing bigger crimes like drug trafficking.

Sensenbrenner complains that the INS has "delayed and delayed" implementing a foreign-student tracking system that Congress mandated in 1996. Half a million people are in the U.S. under student visas. Schools are supposed to inform the INS when foreign students arrive for classes, but the system became antiquated and useless. When the INS tried to enforce the new regulations, school administrators complained to their congressional representatives of red tape.

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