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LOS ANGELES TIMES INTERVIEW

Thomas Schiltgen

Gatekeeper, Warden, Manager, Judge: Staying on Top of Immigration in L.A.

May 16, 1999|Sandra Hernandez | Sandra Hernandez, a former staff writer for LA Weekly, has written extensively about immigration and Latino issues

Early this year, Thomas J. Schiltgen became director of the Los Angeles district office of the Immigration and Naturalization Service. A 24-year veteran of the agency, Schiltgen takes over running the largest INS office in the nation at a critical time. As the head of a district that covers seven counties, he faces a complex situation that includes restoring public confidence in a district that came under scrutiny following a massive citizenship drive that led to allegations the INS failed to properly conduct background checks on thousands of would-be immigrants who were allowed to naturalize. More recently, the L.A. office has drawn fire for the long delays in processing nearly 400,000 citizenship applications in the pipeline. The agency's poor service record was also the target of criticism earlier this year after the INS increased its fees, leading activists and immigrant-rights groups to accuse the agency of failing to do its job.

Adding to Schiltgen's workload is the implementation of new immigration laws passed by Congress in 1996. In cities like Los Angeles, where INS policy is intertwined with the broader life, the impact of these policy changes is only now being felt. Laws requiring mandatory detention for immigrants who commit felonies and lengthening the list of crimes punishable by deportation have raised the agency's status as warden. Detention of undocumented immigrants has led to a shortage of bed space at INS detention facilities. The agency is increasingly turning to private prisons to deal with the situation, touching off concern among civil-rights groups, who say that creates new problems as more and more immigrants get lost in the system. In Los Angeles, the INS houses inmates awaiting deportation proceedings in its San Pedro facility and contracts with local authorities, especially the L.A. County Sheriff's Department.

While the agency is struggling to improve its tarnished image, it faces new hurdles caused by Hurricane Mitch, which devastated much of Central America. President Bill Clinton pledged nearly a billion dollars in aid to the region, yet many say what is needed is a broader plan to help Central Americans already living in this country whose immigration status has been in limbo for nearly a decade. Nearly half of those immigrants live in Los Angeles.

A native of St. Paul, Minn., Schiltgen joined the INS's Chicago office in 1975, after graduating from the University of Minnesota with a degree in sociology. He has worked as a criminal investigator and a prosecutions liaison officer for the agency. He ran the St. Paul district office and later worked for the agency's Thailand office. He returned to the U.S. in 1994, when he moved with his wife, Brenda, and their three children to San Francisco. He remained there, heading the INS district office, until late last year, when the 46-year-old Schiltgen was named director in Los Angeles.

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Question: It has been some months since you took over as director of the Los Angeles office, a district that has a lot of problems. People are anxious to see changes, especially in light of the fee increases and long delays. What has been your top priority?

Answer: The first order of business has been to focus on the naturalization backlog. This has been an issue that is at the forefront in most of the discussion of the INS. It's certainly our biggest workload and probably the focus of 70% to 80% of the inquiries we get from all inquiry bases, including the public. This has been the first order of business, and I'm encouraged by what I've seen so far. There are now a lot of things in place to have a sustained effort of high production.

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Q: In the past, the agency has made similar pledges to reduce the backlog. What is different this time?

A: My response is I've used the words, "I'm encouraged and I see things in place that will lead to a sustained effort." In the past, there were discussions about the fingerprinting process and how to ensure the quality of that process. Those discussions slowed us down because we had to wait and then implement the new quality-control process. We now have that in place and can focus on the backlog. And there have been so many things that have affected the backlog and increased the receipt of naturalization applications that were outside of our control. For example, welfare reform jumped up and hit us, causing an increase in applications. That isn't even an INS issue, but we had to deal with it. But, again, I am cautious and realize we can't promise anything we can't deliver.

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Q: Have you set a quota for the number of cases you want inspectors to complete?

A: We feel that, given the resources that we have and we are receiving this year, we expect we are going to be able to complete somewhere around 22,000 to 23,000 naturalization cases each month.

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