In what INS officials described as a nationwide first, the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service swore in 14 students as agents during a ceremony Wednesday at San Diego State University.
The students, who will work part-time as INS officers in preparation for agency jobs after graduation, are participating in a novel program that officials hope to expand to universities throughout the West.
INS officials said the program is part of a broader effort to attract a wider range of recruits and raise the professionalism of the immigration service, whose employees and regulations have long frustrated people who have to deal with the agency. Among U.S. agencies, perhaps only the Internal Revenue Service has drawn more scorn over the years.
Part of a Larger Agenda
"I view this as only part of a gigantic recruiting strategy," said J.T. Watson Jr., the agency's assistant regional commissioner for examinations.
Watson said the new program reflects the wide-ranging effects of the U.S. Immigration Reform and Control Act, the landmark immigration statute that was passed last year. The sweeping new law, Watson said, will eventually result in an increase of about 25% in INS staffing throughout the agency's Western region, which includes California, Arizona, Nevada, Hawaii and Guam, and employs roughly 4,000 people.
"We're going to have a lot of new people coming on board, and we want to bring some new blood into the service," said Watson, who presided over the swearing-in ceremony.
In recent years, Watson noted, the INS has relied heavily on entry-level agency employees, such as clerks, to fill more responsible positions, such as investigtors and inspectors. "That system has served us very well over the years," Watson said, "but that pool (of prospective employees) is no longer sufficient."
The SDSU students, most of them juniors, are all majoring in criminal justice administration. They have already begun work at the INS's Western Service Center at San Ysidro, where immigration documents from throughout the region are processed.
The students have arranged their INS work schedules around their school duties, which take precedence. They are being paid $5.66 an hour for up to 30 hours a week, and the students may get full-time summer jobs. So far, their work includes on-the-job training, education in the arcane world of immigration law, and processing agency forms. A one-week traning program in Arizona is scheduled for the spring break.
The students' responsibilities will not include turning in undocumented immigrants, on campus or off. For now, their jobs are largely administrative.
"It's a real good opportunity to get a foot in the door of federal law enforcement," said Phil Han, 21, one of the new student agents. "It's another alternative, besides the San Diego Police Department or the sheriff's office."
A Better Image?
Most students interviewed had similar comments. None voiced any reservations about working with the INS, an agency that has also been frequently criticized by Latinos and others for its purported insensitivity toward immigrants and minorities.
"There's no problem for me," said Gabriel Ramirez, 21, who appeared to be one of the few Latinos signing up for the program. "The more I hear about immigration, the more I like it."
Jack Hoskins, a senior, said he believed that the students could eventually help bolster the agency's credibility. "I'm hoping we can take some positive steps to improve relations with the Hispanic community and erase that bad image," Hoskins said.
They may well get the opportunity. INS officials said the students would have an excellent chance to be hired by the agency, assuming that they successfully complete about 1,300 hours of work needed to graduate from the program, and that they acquire college degrees. (They will not be considered for jobs in the U.S. Border Patrol, which conducts recruiting separately.)
Successful participants will receive preferential hiring status, allowing them to potentially skip many entry-level jobs and join the agency at higher-skilled and better-paying positions.
On the Fast Track
"We're going to hire them without (Civil Service) lists and red tape and all of that," said Rick Eaton, the INS official who heads the program, and who worked his way up in the agency from lower-level jobs. "They're going to have a 10-year jump on someone like myself, for instance."
University officials agreed that the program would be a worthwhile experience for would-be INS agents, providing them with an early indicator of whether they really want to continue in the immigration field.
"They'll get a huge dose of reality testing," said Wendy Doty, employer-relations coordinator with SDSU's cooperative education program. "They'll be able to see how things work in the real world."
So far, the students appear to approve of this brand of reality.
"I'm learning a lot already," said Sylvia Crews, 21. "This was just too good an opportunity to pass up."