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INS Chief to Try to Settle Racial Bias Suit


WASHINGTON — Under intense fire over charges of racial discrimination in her agency, Immigration and Naturalization Service Commissioner Doris Meissner agreed at a congressional hearing Thursday to negotiate a settlement to a huge class-action suit originally brought by African American employees of the Los Angeles INS office.

The lawsuit, which encompasses about 900 employees nationwide, spotlights longstanding problems with hiring and promoting blacks within the INS. It also contends that blacks are subjected to a racially hostile work environment and forced to endure derogatory comments and unequal imposition of discipline.

The INS anticipates making a settlement offer in the next week, spokesman Eric Berryman said.

"If a substantive proposal is brought forward, this could be a major step in finally settling this very large class-action suit," said David L. Ross, the Los Angeles attorney representing the plaintiffs. "But they've been telling us this for six months. As far as I'm concerned, talk is cheap. Until I see something in writing, it doesn't mean anything."

Ross is seeking back pay and damages that could total $50 million.

Meissner was called to testify by Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.), chairman of the House Government Operations Committee and the only member of Congress present in the vast committee hearing room.

Conyers, a strong backer of the the plaintiffs' lawsuit who will lose his power to call hearings to the GOP in the next Congress, said racial discrimination within the agency was "unambiguous, bold and unashamed."

"These kinds of discriminatory employment practices have long been illegal, but the INS seems to be operating in some kind of time warp," Conyers said. "I am deeply disturbed that any government agency--but especially a part of the Justice Department of all things--is this far out of control in 1994."

The lawsuit was filed on behalf of more than 500 African American INS employees in September, 1991, and certified as a class-action complaint in January by Administrative Law Judge Jane Goodman in Los Angeles. It has since expanded to cover more than 850 INS employees.

In March, three House committee chairmen, including Conyers, turned up the heat under Meissner, urging her to settle the case expeditiously. But, according to Ross, INS officials missed several deadlines for making settlement proposals, the latest being Monday.

At Thursday's hearing during a brief aside, Meissner announced her intention that the INS attempt to settle the class-action suit, but an INS spokesman afterward seemed surprised by the development.

Meissner said she "very much regretted the underrepresentation (of blacks) and the hostility" and listed a number of measures that she has taken to address the deep-seated problems that she inherited when she took over the agency two years ago.

She has revised evaluation criteria to create more fairness in promotions and pushed for more racial diversity in hiring and recruiting. She has also overseen a special task force to improve the equal employment practices, promoted four blacks to senior level positions and required managers and supervisors to receive training in manager accountability and cultural diversity.

Meissner gave her personal commitment "to ensure that INS has a diverse work force."

But Conyers was not appeased.

"You're making me believe there was no reason to hold this hearing . . . this won't be fixed by sensitivity sessions (to supervisors) who don't give a damn."

Black INS officers have cited 14 years of alleged discrimination, including workplace harassment, unequal discipline and bias in promotions.

African Americans represent more than 11% of the INS's 17,000 full-time workers, but they hold fewer than 6% of the best-paying positions.

Fewer than 50 blacks serve in the nearly 5,000-agent Border Patrol, where complainants say the most virulent discrimination occurs.

The INS bias case began when 19 Los Angeles-based criminal investigators filed a complaint. Several testified at Thursday's hearing.

John T. Wills Jr., a special agent in the INS Los Angeles office, described being verbally abused and threatened by fellow agents, who later received mild disciplinary action.

Wills said he thought his life was in danger. "I don't fear the criminals as much as I do the people inside," Wills said.

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