WASHINGTON — After repeatedly signaling that he was out, the Bush Administration on Monday replaced controversial INS Commissioner Alan C. Nelson, immediately naming his deputy as interim head of the embattled agency until a permanent successor takes over.
James L. Buck, deputy commissioner since Sept. 20, assumed the duties of acting commissioner, ending Nelson's often stormy seven-year tenure.
Gene McNary, the top elected official in St. Louis County in Missouri, "remains the leading candidate" to head the INS, David Runkel, chief spokesman for Atty. Gen. Dick Thornburgh, said.
Some immigration experts view Nelson's departure as an opportunity for the Administration to assert itself in a crucial policy area and to improve the agency's image. However, Nelson defended his record as "firm and fair."
Nelson, like other top officials in the Ronald Reagan Administration, had submitted his resignation at the end of Reagan's term but continued to serve, pending acceptance of the resignation. For five months, the Bush Administration did not accept it, and Nelson did not depart.
Instead, Nelson, known as a stubborn, proud man, waged a vigorous lobbying campaign, including a self-promoting film, to keep his job. He disputed reports that he would be replaced--reports that included confirmation by Justice Department officials.
Called an Embarrassment
"Al has been an increasing embarrassment," a Justice Department official said Monday. "I'm surprised it took this long. He was beginning to make them (Administration officials) look impotent."
As Nelson tried to hold on to his position, his troubles mounted. Earlier this year, an internal audit by the Justice Department, the parent agency of INS, lambasted it as riddled with inefficiency. At the same time, Nelson was under fire for an INS plan to construct a four-mile ditch at the San Diego border and for his handling of the massive influx of Central Americans into South Texas.
Nelson, who Monday was in San Francisco, where he had worked as an attorney for Pacific Telephone & Telegraph Co. before joining the Reagan Administration in 1981, portrayed his actions on those issues as triumphs, asserting that "the United States has to be tough" on immigration matters. Nelson said that he is "very proud of this firm and fair treatment," adding that he is "honored to be a part of" the Administration.
When asked about the fate of Harold Ezell, Western regional commissioner based in Los Angeles, Runkel, who earlier had described him as a "short-termer," would not say when Ezell's resignation would be acted on.
Thornburgh, in a three-paragraph statement accepting Nelson's resignation, thanked him "for his service to the previous Administration and in the early months of this Administration. He has led the (INS) through difficult times."
In presiding over the historic program giving legal status to illegal aliens under the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act, Nelson fought constantly with immigrant rights activists, who accused him of unfairly administering the program.
'Tough Slot to Fill'
Rick Swartz, nationally known immigration lawyer and former president of the National Immigration, Refugee and Citizenship Forum, said that Nelson's resignation "provides an opportunity--finally--for the Bush Administration to take charge of immigration policy and put its own imprimatur on one of the more important issues facing the nation."
The Justice Department has submitted McNary's name to the White House, but President Bush has not sent it to Congress, according to the Senate Judiciary Committee. Administration officials have "a tough slot to fill," an aide said, "and they're only now beginning to take it seriously."
Last month, when the Justice Department recommended McNary, a lawyer, to run the $1-billion agency, he came under immediate attack by immigration activists, who complained that he had no experience in immigration law. Several contended that McNary had been chosen because he had served as county chairman last year for Bush's presidential campaign.
Also, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, in a scathing May 15 editorial headlined "The Wrong Man for the Job," asserted: "Besides a lack of experience in immigration, he hasn't shown much sympathy toward minorities . . . . Nor have his budgets shown much of a commitment to programs for the poor, such as health services, social services and housing."
The editorial said: "Mr. McNary may be suited for any number of jobs in the Bush Administration; the immigration job isn't one of them."
McNary, in a long response to the editorial, noted that he had been elected to the post of county executive in 1974 and reelected three times. He called the charge that he is insensitive "wrong and unsupported by the facts," saying his record was one of "honesty, efficiency, sound management and absolute dedication to all county citizens."
Nomination Called Imminent