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It's Business as Usual for INS

November 28, 1986

After Congress enacted the nation's new immigration law, many experts warned that it might not work well if the Immigration and Naturalization Service was insensitive or careless about implementing it. Long regarded as one of the worst-run agencies in the federal bureaucracy, INS has wasted little time in proving those fears well grounded.

When President Reagan signed the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 he immediately made thousands of illegal immigrants eligible for legal status under the new law's amnesty provisions, which allow persons who have been in the country illegally since January, 1982, or worked on farms for 90 days within the last year, to petition for the right to remain in the country. INS will begin accepting amnesty applications next May. But, in the meantime, INS officers continued removing illegal immigrants from the United States, and made only minimal efforts to determine if the people being detained and deported might be eligible for amnesty. Immigration attorneys filed a lawsuit challenging INS' business-as-usual attitude, and this week a federal judge in Sacramento wisely ordered the INS to change its ways--at least temporarily.

U.S. Dist. Judge Lawrence K. Karlton ordered INS officials to inform illegal immigrants that they may have a right to seek amnesty before they are deported. Karlton specifically rejected an INS decision that an immigrant who leaves the United States after Nov. 6, the date on which Reagan signed the law, is ineligible for legalization because he has broken a period of "continuous physical presence" in the country that is required for the amnesty. In some instances this could mean that an otherwise eligible immigrant--say, someone who had lived in this country for several years--could not apply for amnesty because he had departed from the United States under orders from the INS. The twisted logic behind such thinking sounds like something out of Kafka or "Catch-22."

Karlton also ordered the agency to post signs at border exits to advise illegal immigrants of their possible right to amnesty--a gesture that is almost sure to raise the hackles of old Border Patrol hands. Sadly, their attitude reflects the unfriendly and uncooperative attitude that some INS officials have toward immigrants. They are more concerned with the agency's law-enforcement function than they are about providing service to people who may need their help and guidance. If nothing else, a business-as-usual attitude in INS could frighten away many of the illegal immigrants whom the new law is supposed to help.

The INS' insensitive attitude was reflected in the announcement by its commissioner, Alan Nelson, that the agency will defy Karlton's "outrageous" decision and appeal it to a higher court. Given the complexities of the new immigration law, Nelson and INS attorneys should have more important things to worry about--like making sure that both employers and immigrants are fully informed about their new rights and responsibilities, or that the 100 special offices that INS will set up to help administer the new law will be run efficiently.

Nelson and other INS officials fought hard to get Congress to enact the new immigration law. But they seem to forget that the political compromise that ensured its enactment was a balance between restrictionist measures, like sanctions against employers who hire illegal immigrants, and provisions that protect the rights of illegal immigrants, including the amnesty. Now that the new law is in effect, INS can't operate under the old rules any more than an employer or an illegal immigrant can. If INS is not willing to change, Congress and the courts must be prepared to force it to do so.

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